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Vernon Dobson, civil rights leader

The Rev. Vernon Dobson, a Baptist minister and civil rights leader, died Saturday of complications of a stroke. He was 89.

As a leading figure in Baltimore's civil rights movement, Mr. Dobson lived a life molded by the struggle for equality — a struggle he continued into his last years — and as a pastor who believed that the church should play an important part in the fight.

Campaigning took a hold on Mr. Dobson's life early on. Talking to The Baltimore Sun in 1998, he described demonstrating against segregation as a young child with his mother in the 1930s.

"My mother fired the fuel of dissent in me," he said. "Every Saturday morning, a group of women would go to Pennsylvania Avenue to protest. And sometimes they would take us with them."

Mr. Dobson graduated from Frederick Douglass High School in 1941 and served in the Navy during World War II. He studied at Howard University on the G.I. Bill, earning two degrees, and went on to work as a probation officer in Baltimore.

By 1958 he had joined Union Baptist Church in West Baltimore as an assistant pastor and went on to be pastor there for 39 years until his retirement in 2007.

In the meantime he had become heavily involved with the civil rights struggles of the 1950s and 1960s. Mr. Dobson helped lead the successful push in the summer of 1963 to desegregate Gwynn Oak amusement park. In 1998, The Sun published for the first time the names of all the people arrested during the protests: His was on the list.

The park was finally desegregated the same day as the March on Washington, when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his "Dream" speech. Mr. Dobson helped plan for the march and continued to work with Dr. King. He recalled marching with him from Selma to Montgomery in 1965.

"I never saw so many cracker cops in my life," he told The Sun in 2008.

After Dr. King was assassinated in 1968, riots broke out in Baltimore, as in many cities, and Mr. Dobson again swung into action, working with developer James Rouse to found the Maryland Food Bank and feed people displaced by the disorder.

So long was Mr. Dobson's career that when he dropped by the food bank late in life, his daughter, Sandra Dobson, said no one recognized him. They offered him food.

"He said it didn't matter who founded this place," she added, as long as they continued to do the work.

But Ms. Dobson said her father became concerned that the younger generation of African-Americans did not understand the struggles of their parents and grandparents. He fretted at an event commemorating the 150th anniversary of Union Baptist that the churches were losing their sense of social mission.

"The black church is disengaged," Mr. Dobson said at the time. "My theory is that it has become more interested in success than in community."

And in the late 1990s, he said the promise that redeveloping downtown Baltimore would help its neighborhoods had not panned out.

But he never gave up on the hope of progress, and conscious of the passing of the civil rights generation, Mr. Dobson co-founded BUILD — Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development — in 1977 to make sure that its lessons were not forgotten.

"He was literally the heart and soul of the BUILD organization," said Bishop Douglas Miles, a former head of the group. "He was very much in tune with keeping the church involved in the struggle to empower people and to keep alive the vestige of civil rights movement."

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said the current generation of city leaders stands on the shoulders of people like Mr. Dobson. "Today, many people in Baltimore, myself included, now have opportunities and freedoms not offered to generations before us," she said.

A memorial service will be held 11 a.m. Feb. 2 at St. Mark's Institutional Baptist Church, Baltimore. All are welcome.

In addition to his daughter, Mr. Dobson is survived by his wife of 67 years, Napoleon B. Dobson; six other children, Rosalind Dobson, Johnetta Coles, Keith Dobson, Kevin Dobson, Kim Sydnor and Donna Dobson; his brother, Irvin O. Dobson; sister, Anne Dobson Ware; 11 grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren. His son Michael preceded him in death.

iduncan@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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