The Rev. James C. Blackburn, a retired Episcopal priest who championed civil rights, peace, and social justice, died from complications of lymphoma and pneumonia.
The Rev. James C. Blackburn, a retired Episcopal priest who championed civil rights, peace, and social justice, died from complications of lymphoma and pneumonia. (Handout / HANDOUT)

The Rev. James C. Blackburn, a retired Episcopal priest who championed civil rights, peace, and social justice, died Saturday from complications of lymphoma and pneumonia at Gilchrist Hospice Care in Towson.

The longtime Homeland resident was 82.


"He loved the Episcopal Church, even in difficult times of conflict," wrote a son, David H. Blackburn of Montclair, N.J., in an email. "Echoing the late Bishop James Pike, he liked to describe the attraction of the Episcopal Church in the words of the Psalm: 'Lord, I thank thee that thou hast set my feet in a large room.'"

The son of Paul V. Blackburn, an industrial manager, and Sylvia Wheeler Blackburn, James Clark Blackburn was born in Cleveland. After his father's death in 1939, he moved with his family to Harrisburg, Pa.

His mother married John H. Zebley Jr. in 1946, and the family settled in Rosemont, Pa. There, he graduated in 1952 from Lower Merion Senior High School in Ardmore, Pa.

In 1956, Father Blackburn was a magna cum laude graduate of Amherst College. He earned a bachelor's degree in philosophy and had been a member of Phi Beta Kappa.

In 1969, he received a master's degree in sociology from the University of Pennsylvania.

After graduating in 1959 from Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria, he was ordained a deacon and, in December of that year, entered into the Episcopal priesthood.

During a career that spanned more than four decades, Father Blackburn served congregations in Pennsylvania, Kansas, Delaware, New Jersey and Washington.

"Because the Episcopal Diocese of Kansas was so sprawling, Jim learned to fly in order to carry out his pastoral duties," said Rev. James C. Crowder, a classmate at Virginia Theological Seminary and former senior associate at the Episcopal Church of the Redeemer who retired in 1997.

In Baltimore, Father Blackburn also served at the Church of the Redeemer, as associate rector from 1981 to 1985.

He then was interim rector at St. Margaret's Episcopal Church in Washington from 1985 to 1987. At that time, he returned to the city and was named interim rector at St. Michael's and All Angels Episcopal Church.

For the last decade or so of his career, Father Blackburn worked closely with congregations whose pastors had either retired, died or moved on to another church.

In this capacity he led Episcopal congregations at St. John's Church in Georgetown, All Saints Church in Sunderland, Christ Church in St. Michaels, Episcopal Church of Christ the King in Baltimore and All Hallows Parish, South River, Davidsonville, until a new rector arrived.

Although he retired in 1999, he remained active in ministry work.

"He was a pastoral associate at Redeemer where helped out and visited the bereaved and sick," said his wife of 29 years, the former Judith Stewart Busky.


Throughout his career and life, Father Blackburn was a supporter of causes such as civil rights, anti-Vietnam War activism, social justice, peace and women's reproductive rights.

During the 1960s while working in Philadelphia, Father Blackburn joined with other clergy and medical providers who established the Clergy Consultation Service to arrange counseling and physician referrals for women seeking to terminate pregnancies.

In later years, he had been a member of the board of Planned Parenthood of Baltimore.

In 1965, he traveled to Alabama to participate in Dr. Martin Luther King's historic civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery.

"During his last days I sat with him in the hospital and asked about Selma," his son wrote in an email. "He told me that he flew to Montgomery and was involved in the activities there, but was not able to get to Selma due to the general state of chaos. He participated in rallies and marches in Montgomery, and was there at the end of the March from Selma."

His son asked him to describe the mood of Alabama during that time, and he said his father told him: "I have never been in a situation when I saw so much hatred from the eyes of white people. And so much 'we're together and I'm glad you're here,' from the black people."

From 1970 to 1973, he was coordinator of the Episcopal Reconciliation Program, an anti-racism effort for the Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania.

During the Vietnam War, Father Blackburn participated in anti-war marches and counseled young men on alternatives to selective service.

"He tolerated with grace the wiretaps on his phone as well as government investigation and harassment of him and his acquaintances," his son wrote.

"He was very involved with civil rights and the anti-war movement. He was very outspoken about the ordination of women into the priesthood," said Father Crowder. "That's just who he was and he did not make a big deal about it. He always put his body where his mind was."

During his retirement, Father Blackburn had a second career teaching literature and theology at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at Towson University. Between 2002 and 2014, he taught 17 courses, including one on folk music where he played his guitar.

"He just concluded teaching a course. For someone to be doing that in their 80s is someone to be admired," said Father Crowder. "Jim was a very smart, bright and versatile guy who liked being involved in continuing education. He never let his mind rest."

A memorial service will be held for Father Blackburn at 10:30 a.m. June 4 in the chapel at the Episcopal Church of the Redeemer, 5603 N. Charles St.

In addition to his wife and son, survivors include two sons, John C. Blackburn of Easley, S.C., and Paul B. Blackburn of Hood River, Ore.; a stepson, Jonathan S. Busky of Brooklyn, N.Y.; a brother, David W. Blackburn of Fairfield, Conn.; and six grandchildren. An earlier marriage to the former Elisabeth D. Burrall ended in divorce.