Charles Byrd Blackburn, a plaintiff in a Maryland lawsuit that sought to legalize same-sex marriages who had earlier worked in the 1960s civil rights movement, died of an apparent heart attack May 31 at his Bolton Hill home. He was 84.
Born in Bradenton, Fla., he was the son of Henry Blackburn, a Methodist minister, and Mary Frances Smith. He earned a bachelor's degree at Florida Southern University, where he was a member of the Reserve Officers Training Corps, and he served in the Army in Georgia.
In 1957, after becoming a Unitarian Universalist, he joined the All Souls Unitarian Church in Washington, D.C. He studied at Virginia Theological Seminary, Howard University School of Divinity and the Starr King School for the Ministry in Berkeley, Calif.
He initially led a Unitarian congregation in Hayward, Calif., but wanted to become a part of the civil rights movement in the South. He accepted a position at a Huntsville, Ala., congregation and soon began helping African-Americans register to vote in Mississippi.
"He was thrown in jail along with 16 other ministers and rabbis who were there doing the same work," according to a 2006 Baltimore Sun article. "They were held 48 hours before mounting public pressure forced the sheriff to release them and drop all charges."
In The Sun's article, Mr. Blackburn recalled leading church members to Selma, Ala., for historic marches on March 6 and March 8, 1965. A photo of him participating in one of the marches appeared in The Huntsville Times on the paper's front page.
"That would cause problems — including more than 250 obscene and threatening phone calls," according to the 2006 article. A friend and fellow Unitarian minister, Jim Reeb, died shortly afterward of head injuries injuries after he was beaten by a mob.
"In the next few years, as Blackburn crisscrossed Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana, he would be targeted with rocks and obscene phone calls. Once, someone attempted to burn a cross on his front lawn," The Sun's article said. "On another occasion, he was spirited out of Shreveport, La., in a private plane after he learned the sheriff was waiting at the public airport to arrest him."
In 1966, Mr. Blackburn left the South and took a church post in Rockland Springs, N.Y., and later served as an American Civil Liberties Union field director in Atlanta.
"He traveled the South again and, at one point, before he was to give a sermon in a Unitarian church in New Orleans, a plate-glass window was blown out with a shotgun blast from a moving car," The Sun's 2006 article said.
Mr. Blackburn said that by the end of the 1960s, he was slowly coming to terms with his sexuality.
"I really didn't think I was gay for the longest time until I finally acknowledged it in New York," he told The Sun in 2006.
In an attempt "to make a fresh start," he said, he moved to Baltimore in 1975, where he became the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's director of development. He later worked as a fundraiser for for the University of Maryland and Johns Hopkins Medicine.
In 1978, he met his future husband, Glen Dehn, who was then a legislative analyst for the Social Security Administration. They lived in a Bolton Street home, which they often opened for charitable and other causes.
About 15 years ago, Mr. Blackburn became active in another movement, advocating for the legalization of same-sex marriages. He rejected the concept of civil unions, which he compared to his days in the South.
"It's just like the old argument of separate but equal facilities for blacks," he said in 2006. "They weren't, they never will be and they never could be. And it's the same. It's the same."
He and Mr. Dehn were among nine Baltimore couples who filed a lawsuit in Baltimore Circuit Court in 2004 to expand marital rights to same-sex partners. After the Maryland General Assembly passed a same-sex marriage law, which was approved by voters in a 2012 referendum, the couple were married Feb. 17, 2013, at First Unitarian Church.
"He was a hero on two fronts. Few people can match his activism in one lifetime," said Susan Goering, director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland.
The Morning Sun Newsletter
Get your morning news in your e-mail inbox. Get all the top news and sports from the baltimoresun.com.
"Charles and Glen were brave to have brought the suit," said former state Sen. Julian "Jack" Lapides, a neighbor. "And while he was a hero for his advocacy in same-sex marriages, he was a magnificent advocate for Bolton Hill and Baltimore City."
Mr. Blackburn sang in the Baltimore Symphony Chorus and the Baltimore Choral Arts Society. He also sang in the First Unitarian Church choir and performed with the Young Victorians theater troupe.