Kenneth L. Webster, state delegate, dies at 76

Former Del. Kenneth L. Webster, who led the battle for and wrote the historic legislation that made the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday a legal state holiday in Maryland, died Friday of kidney failure at the Baltimore Veteran Administration Medical Center.

The longtime Northwood resident was 76.

"Getting Martin Luther King's birthday declared a state holiday was a great achievement, and Kenny deserves a lot of credit for doing that," said former state Sen. Julian L. "Jack" Lapides. "And what a great and wonderful character he was."

Mr. Webster was first elected to the state legislature in 1970 and made establishing Dr. King's birthday as a state holiday a priority.

In 1974, after heavy caucusing by Mr. Webster and other African-American legislators, Maryland became the second state in the nation to honor the civil rights legend's birthday by declaring it an official holiday.

Illinois became the first state in 1973 to honor the civil rights leader's birthday, and it became a federal holiday in 1983, when President Ronald Reagan signed the bill authorizing the holiday, which is celebrated on the third Monday of January.

Mr. Webster told The Baltimore Sun in a 1997 interview that whites "aren't going to say it's a black holiday — they're going to say it's an American holiday — but basically view it as a black holiday."

Two years ago when Sojourner-Douglass College established a scholarship for students who had financial need, they named it in honor of Mr. Webster.

Recalling the struggle to get Dr. King's birthday realized as a legal holiday, Mr. Webster told The Baltimore Sun in 2009, "I just felt the United States ought to recognize him" and explained that it took three years of intense effort before it passed.

"I was on the Ways and Means Committee. [Current U.S. Sen. Benjamin L Cardin] was the chair. He kept telling me, 'There ain't no money. There ain't no money. We can't.' I said, 'There ain't no such thing as we can't. It's we won't.'"

Mr. Webster's bill, HB 320, established Jan. 15 as a legal holiday in honor of Dr. King. It passed the House of Delegates, 82-23, and later passed the Senate, 29-0.

Carl O. Snowden, the Annapolis civil rights activist who is director of the office of civil rights at the Maryland attorney general's office, is a longtime friend.

"Kenny Webster spoke truth to power," Mr. Snowden told The Baltimore Sun in a 2009 article. "His bill served to be a catalyst for this being a national holiday."

The son of a laborer and a domestic worker, Mr. Webster was born in Baltimore and raised on Pearl Street. After graduating from Frederick Douglass High School in 1954, he served for three years as an Air Force military police officer in England.

After being discharged from the Air Force in 1957, he studied political science and history at what is now Morgan State University for three years, and eventually returned to Morgan, where he earned his bachelor's degree in 1994.

From 1963 to 1968, Mr. Webster worked as a civilian employee of the Maryland State Police supervising trusties for the Maryland House of Correction.

After leaving the state police, he was employed until 1970 as an administrative senior assistant in the city's Department of Housing and Community Development, and later for Model Cities in the mid-1970s.

Mr. Webster, who represented the 40th District in West Baltimore, was a popular figure in the House of Delegates.

"Kenny also introduced the legislation that allowed the mayor to appoint the Baltimore City police commissioner rather than the governor as had been the past practice," said Mr. Snowden. "He did this in his first term and was successful in getting it through."

"Kenny Webster could out-talk anyone in the legislature, including me," Mr. Lapides said with a laugh.

"He was full of vitality and always spoke his mind, not that I always agreed with him," he said. "He was charming, articulate, caring, concerned and controversial. What a great and wonderful character he was."

Mr. Webster was also a founding member of the Maryland Legislative Black Caucus.

"He wasn't one to mince words. He was very outspoken and very quotable," said Mr. Snowden. "He was a straight-shooter and totally willing to pay the price for his opinions and political views."

In 1978, Mr. Webster lost his bid for a third term.

From 1973 to 1981, he was assistant director of the Self Help Housing Board and then went to Anne Arundel County as a housing counselor advocate. He returned to Baltimore in 1983, as Lafayette Housing coordinator for the city Housing Authority.

He served as an aide to Mayor Clarence H. "Du" Burns from 1987 to 1988, when he took a job for three years as administrative officer of public infrastructure for the Anne Arundel County Department of Housing and Community Development.

Mr. Webster was assistant chief inspector for the Baltimore City Liquor Board from 1992 to 1995. He then worked for the next five years as program officer in Annapolis for the Department of Housing and Community Development.

At his retirement in 2008, Mr. Webster was special assistant to the director of the Department of Public Works in Baltimore.

In addition to his legislative and professional career, Mr. Webster was a much-in-demand political consultant.

He played a pivotal role in the campaigns of the late Parren J. Mitchell, who was Maryland's first African-American congressman, Gov. William Donald Schaefer, Sen. Joan Carter Conway and Annapolis Aldermen Mr. Snowden and Classie G. Hoyle.

Mr. Webster was an avid reader of history, especially black history, said his wife of 47 years, the former Phoebe C. Myers, a retired Social Security Administration claims examiner.

"Ken loved politics and was a good Democrat," said Mrs. Webster.

Mr. Webster was a member of Faith Baptist Church, 833 N. Bond St., where a wake will be held at 9:30 a.m. Tuesday. Funeral services will follow at 10:30 a.m. Tuesday.

Also surviving are three sisters, Florence Thomas and Mabel Burgess, both of Baltimore, and Ethel Webster of Roanoke, Va.; and many nieces and nephews.