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Rev. Marion Bascom, civil rights activist and pastor, dies

He had been pastor of Douglas Memorial church

By Jacques Kelly, The Baltimore Sun

8:07 PM EDT, May 18, 2012

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The Rev. Marion C. Bascom, a leading Baltimore civil rights activist remembered for his lifetime quest for social justice, died of a heart attack Thursday at the University of Maryland Medical Center. He was 87 and lived in Reservoir Hill.

"A giant has fallen," said former Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, a close friend and a member of Douglas Memorial Community Church, where Mr. Bascom was pastor for 46 years. "He affected thousands of lives in our community and was a positive life force."

As 1963 chairman of the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance, Mr. Bascom helped attract scores of nonviolent protesters — priests, rabbis and ministers — to segregated Gwynn Oak Amusement Park in Woodlawn. Arrested by Baltimore County police, they were widely photographed in the local media. "Such scenes had a lasting impact on this town's social conscience," a 1995 Baltimore Sun editorial said.

He was a charismatic speaker for religious and interracial understanding and espoused betterment in working conditions for black firefighters. He was also a leader in the founding of Associated Black Charities.

He was called "the elder statesman of civil rights in Baltimore" in a 1998 Sun article about the Gwynn Oak protest.

"I was more concerned with causes than high places," he said in an interview in the bulletin of Brown Memorial Park Avenue Presbyterian Church, where he worshipped recently.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake called him "one of Baltimore's great civil rights leaders ... who helped shape the religious and political infrastructure we all benefit from today." The mayor said, "His faith inspired a commitment to the fight for equality and human rights for all Americans. ... He spoke for justice and advocated for the disenfranchised."

She recalled that he was Baltimore's first black fire commissioner, and the firehouse on Liberty Heights Avenue and Garrison Boulevard is named in his honor.

"Reverend Bascom was a husband, a father, a neighbor, a friend, an advocate, a pastor and a leader," she said. "He was just as respected in the halls of political power as he was at the pulpit of his beloved Douglas Memorial Community Church."

He retired from Douglas Memorial Church in 1995 at age 70.

"He went out on a high note: a 21/2-hour service largely consisting of choral singing, solos and stirring piano and organ music," said The Sun's account of his farewell. "It brought out about 600 worshippers, including Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, a member of Douglas Memorial since boyhood, and dozens of people from churches in New York City and Detroit, where Mr. Bascom has been a guest minister."

At that time, a member of his congregation and a church trustee, Joseph L. Washington, said, "He doesn't just read the Scripture, he acts the Scripture."

Mr. Bascom was born in Pensacola, Fla., where he preached as a child. A graduate of Florida Memorial College and Howard University's School of Divinity, he served as pastor at two churches in St. Augustine, Fla., before coming to Douglas Memorial in July 1949.

The Sun's profile said that in the early 1960s, Mr. Bascom marched with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in Alabama, led marches in Annapolis and participated in protests at then-all-white Northwood Theatre in Northeast Baltimore. He was one of 283 people arrested July 4, 1963, during the peaceful protest against the exclusion of blacks from the privately owned Gwynn Oak park.

"I have nothing to lose but my chains," the 35-year-old Mr. Bascom told a crowd there. "And if I do not preach at my pulpit Sunday morning, it might be the most eloquent sermon I ever preached."

In Sun photos of that protest, he is shown walking behind Eugene Carson Blake, a high-ranking national Presbyterian Church official.

"As a result of those arrests and protests that followed, the Baltimore County Council created a Human Relations Commission that brought the park's owners together with the protesters and eventually led to an agreement opening the park to all," The Sun profile said.

Mr. Bascom could recall, firsthand, Dr. King's visits to Baltimore at the Prince Hall Masonic Temple on Eutaw Place and at the old Cornerstone Baptist Church in Bolton Hill in the 1960s.

In 1968, immediately after Dr. King's assassination, he said, "I suppose I share the shock that everyone else feels over the untimely assassination of America's best friend," according to an Evening Sun article. "But his death will be felt by underprivileged people, whether they happen to be American or not."

He was among the civil rights leaders who walked out in protest at remarks made to them by former Gov. Spiro T. Agnew after the April 1968 riots.

His service to Baltimore extended beyond fighting for integration, his friends said.

He developed a Meals on Wheels program for the community around his church, helped develop Douglas Village, a 49-unit apartment complex for the disadvantaged on Madison Avenue, and established a summer camp for underprivileged children in Carroll County.

"So many people recall his love for young people," said Douglas' current pastor, the Rev. S. Todd Yeary. "He loved that camp. It was his baby."

He said that he often sought advice from Mr. Bascom. They met for breakfast at Miss Shirley's on Cold Spring Lane or had lunch at the Rusty Scupper on Key Highway.

"He captured the hearts and minds and imagination of the entire city," Mr. Yeary said.

When Mr. Bascom retired, he said that he was leaving behind a church that, like many in the city, had a shrinking congregation. "Its membership has dropped from 1,000 members in 1949 to about 600 this year, with only about 20 living in the immediate neighborhood," the 1995 article said.

"The affluent people moved out, and the poor, the disenfranchised, moved in their place," Mr. Bascom said.

"He was the most giving and forgiving person," said his wife of 33 years, the former Dorothy Brooks. "He was the most available person. He was always there for his parishioners, his family and his friends. He was one of God's unique characters."

A memorial service will be held at Douglas Memorial Community Church. No date has been determined.

In addition to his wife, survivors include a son, Peter John Bascom of Baltimore; three daughters, Singleton Bascom Wyche of Pikesville, Bernadette Bascom of Seattle and Viviane Thorpe of Silver Spring; and four grandchildren.

jacques.kelly@baltsun.com

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