He has also marched with those pushing for more jobs related to the East Baltimore Development Inc. project near Johns Hopkins Hospital and supported efforts to preserve the historic Read's Drug Store on the West Side of downtown.
"He's really big on doing things to help people, and he does it not for money and not for notoriety," said Janice Grant, 79, a civil rights leader who lives in Harford County and considers Witherspoon a "son." "I think it's in his heart. It's the kind of person he is."
Marvin "Doc" Cheatham, the former Baltimore chapter president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, recalls that Witherspoon first got involved in activism as a teenager, but seemed to aspire to leadership without "paying his dues."
"You have to understand the mission. A lot of people want to wear the crown without wearing the cross," said Cheatham, 62.
Cheatham and Witherspoon now speak often. "I'm encouraged to see him pick up the gauntlet, especially when so many other civil rights groups seem to be void of activism," Cheatham said.
Witherspoon has been working to reactivate a local chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the civil rights group whose first president was Martin Luther King Jr. In the meantime, he has been building what he acknowledges are unlikely alliances with the All People's Congress, a socialist group, and the Occupy movement. Though those groups' members are more likely to be white, organizers said they share common goals.
Beth Emmerling, a member of Occupy Baltimore, said Witherspoon attended early meetings and was involved with a working group called Jobs for Justice. She said the partnership was a "natural evolution."
"He has more knowledge in the area of civil rights, and a lot of the African-American poor communities, that we just don't have," Emmerling said. "He also understands our outrage. When we're outraged, we're outraged together."
Witherspoon said some of his black colleagues told him to distance himself from the Occupy movement. But in speeches at rallies, he is just as likely to talk about issues important to Baltimore's black community as he is to voice support for the gay community or other minority groups — not always to the same applause.
"I really believe there's more that unites us than divides us," Witherspoon said. "The level of activity that this [Occupy] group is doing, I have probably not seen in a concentrated, consistent way in my entire life. Some of the issues we face are issues of race, but we face issues of class and economic discrimination that can affect anybody."
An alliance with the All People's Congress solidified after they both protested in 2011 the beating of a black teenager by brothers associated with an Orthodox Jewish neighborhood watch group. Rallies attracted a smattering of various interests, and some of the remarks focused on the religion of the suspects.
Andy Alperstein, an attorney who represented the brothers, said Witherspoon was disruptive in court and the rallies were unproductive.
"I think the issues he's talking about are really important; I don't think anybody would disagree with that. But some of the comments in the process of the trial were incendiary, and they caused heightened tensions in the community for all of the folks involved," Alperstein said.
Witherspoon continues to work with the All People's Congress, specifically with one of its leaders, Sharon Black, who has appeared with him at events and was arrested with him at City Hall. Emmerling said the two often send out group emails into the early morning, and Black said they are increasingly being contacted by those alleging police abuse.
Even with the collective resources of several groups, Witherspoon acknowledges that getting support for a cause in Baltimore is difficult. Thousands marched through downtown streets for a rally organized by Witherspoon and others after the death of Florida teen Trayvon Martin, but only a fraction took part in a rally for Anderson, the local man whose death during a Sept. 21 arrest has been ruled a homicide.
After hearing of Anderson's case, Witherspoon was concerned but cautious. He went door to door, talking to as many people as he could to vouch for the information he was hearing. He said he found 10 to 15 people, separate from the family, who consistently described an assault by police. He decided Anderson's was a cause worth taking up.
"I firmly believe there is a movement occurring," Witherspoon said. "It's slow, and you have to be patient. But there is something happening in this city."
Cortly "C.D." Witherspoon
Family: Son, 3
Education: Attended Soujourner-Douglass College
Work: Minister (licensed at First Baptist Church), community organizer, legislative assistant Text NEWS to 70701 to get Baltimore Sun local news text alerts