The Rev. Dr. Emmett C. Burns Jr., the first African American elected to statewide office representing Baltimore County and the founding pastor at Rising Sun First Baptist Church, died of complications of a fall Thursday at Sinai Hospital. The Lochearn resident was 81.
As a state delegate, the Rev. Burns spearheaded a campaign to rename the Baltimore airport after civil rights activist Thurgood Marshall.
“Emmett was always on the right side of most issues and was always very much his own person,” said Larry S. Gibson, longtime University of Maryland professor of law and author of a biography of Thurgood Marshall, who was also a close friend and confidant. “He was serious, but not as serious as his demeanor appears to be in pictures, he really was a very pleasant man.”
Del. Benjamin T. Brooks Sr., who took over the Rev. Burns’ seat in the 10th District in Baltimore County in 2015, said: “He was very instrumental and strong leader in the community. He was a man of morals, values, ethics and integrity. We are going to sorely miss him.”
Emmett Carl Burns Jr., son of the Rev. Emmett C. Burns Sr., a Baptist minister, and his wife, Clara Burns, a textile worker, was born and raised in Jackson, Mississippi, one of three brothers.
After graduating in 1958 from the segregated Jim Hill High School, he earned a bachelor’s degree in 1962 from Jackson State University.
“They were poor and he grew up across the street from Jackson State,” said a son, the Rev. Engel Burns, a Washington resident, who succeeded his father as pastor of Rising Sun Baptist Church. “Every day he saw kids going to college, which inspired him to go to college, and he never gave up that dream.”
“His brother Robert, who has since died, moved to Milwaukee as part of the last of the northern migration, and took a job in a factory so he could help his three other brothers attend college, and they loved him for his sacrifice,” his son said.
Subsequently, the elder Rev. Burns earned his undergraduate degree from Jackson State University and obtained a master’s degree in 1968 from Virginia Union University, another master’s in religious education in 1969 from the Presbyterian School of Christian Education in Richmond, Virginia, and a doctorate in 1974 from the University of Pittsburgh.
He went on to serve in the U.S. Air Force from 1975 to 1978, where he attained the rank of captain.
The Rev. Dr. Burns’ civil rights activism began early in life as legendary civil rights leader Medgar W. Evers maintained an office several blocks away from where he grew up.
“Medgar Evers was his mentor,” his son said. “As a young boy, my father would hand out civil rights flyers, and when he took my mother on their first date, he loaned my father his car.”
When he was a student at Jackson State, and at Mr. Evers’ urging, the Rev. Dr. Burns participated in a march to integrate the local public library. The march was broken up by tear gas, dogs and police swinging night sticks. He was later arrested for drinking from a “whites only” water fountain.
“I grew up in fear,” the Rev. Dr. Burns explained in a 1983 Sunday Sun interview. “I think the most lasting impression I had when I was about 8 years old and saw three white policemen pull a Black woman, who had run a red light, out of her car and slap her around. Ten Black men were standing around couldn’t do anything. I knew something was dreadfully wrong with that.”
The Rev. Burns later worked at the NAACP under Mr. Evers.
The Rev. Burns was working in Wisconsin in 1963 when he turned on the radio and learned that Mr. Evers had been assassinated.
Twenty years later, he could quote verbatim the mournful opening words of the radio broadcaster: “Death has occurred again in the stillness of the night in Mississippi,” he explained in The Sunday Sun article. “From that point,” he said, “I resolved that I would return to Mississippi and continue Mr. Evers’ struggle.”
After earning his doctorate and handling several ministerial positions in Virginia and Pennsylvania, the Rev. Burns was named in 1971 field director of the Mississippi State Conference of the NAACP, a position he held for seven years. There he led protests against schools where students were segregated by sex in an attempt to “keep Black boys and white girls away from each other,” and filed lawsuits that sought equal city services for Black and white people against several municipalities.
The Rev. Burns relocated to Baltimore in 1979 to serve as the NAACP’s first regional director, serving Maryland, Washington, and Virginia
“My friends in Maryland get so mad at me,” he told the Sunday Sun. “I’m always telling them that Mississippi is better than Maryland (in regards to civil rights). The difference between there and here is there you know where you stand. Here, racism is more subtle. And subtle racism is worse than overt racism.”
In 1983, the Rev. Burns and his wife, the former Earlean Poe, started Rising Sun First Baptist Church in the living room of their Lochearn home.
He retired from the NAACP in 1993 and moved to pastoring full time, his son said. When redistricting occurred in Baltimore County, an opportunity arose to elect an African American to statewide office to represent the county.
The Rev. Burns’ son remembered his father taking a vote at the family table one morning.
“He asked us if he should run,” his son recalled. He won that first election at the breakfast table, his son said.
The Rev. Burns successfully ran for the House of Delegates as a Democrat from Baltimore County’s District 10, where he represented Catonsville, Woodlawn, Lochearn, Randallstown and Milford Mill.
The Rev. Burns’ early advocacy work on civil rights issues and his faith helped shape his political career. At times, his faith would cause friction in his political life, his son said.
The Rev. Burns has been a prominent opponent of same-sex marriage, and wrote Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti asking him to quiet linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo, an outspoken supporter of same-sex marriage.
Same-sex marriage passed the legislature in 2012.
“He was true to his faith,” his son said.
The Rev. Burns’ lasting achievement was spearheading the effort in renaming the Baltimore-Washington International Airport after Thurgood Marshall, the first Black U.S. Supreme Court justice.
“It was Emmett’s idea to name the airport after Thurgood Marshall, and he introduced the bill and got it through the House of Delegates,” Mr. Gibson said. “I did the lobbying for his idea but he had initiated it. It was two hours until sine die when it passed the Senate. I was in the gallery and when it did, he looked up and gave me a thumbs-up.”
Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. signed the bill, and in 2005, the airport was renamed Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport.
The idea to name the Baltimore airport after Marshall may have been planted in the Rev. Burns’ mind after the Jackson, Mississippi City Council, renamed their airport a year earlier the Medgar Wiley Evers International Airport.
“He always told me that when he died he wanted to go home to Jackson from BWI-Thurgood Marshall, through Louis Armstrong Airport in New Orleans, and finally to Medgar Evers Airport,” Mr. Gibson said. “He even said that when proposing the legislation.”
The Rev. Dr. Burns retired from the House of Delegates in 2015, and in recent years, had spent his days working with his son in the day to day operation of the church he had established.
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Engel Burns said his father’s biggest accomplishment was serving the church.
“As much as he loved serving people in the civic arena, his real passion was the church,” he said.
The Rev. Burns was also a caring father and husband, his son said.
“He loved his family, he loved his children, and he cherished my mom,” he said.
An avid book collector and reader, the Rev. Burns was “fascinated by history and especially World War II,” his son said.
Plans for funeral services are incomplete but the Rev. Burns will be returned to Jackson for burial at Garden Memorial Park, which, fittingly, is on Medgar Evers Boulevard.
In addition to his son, he is survived by his wife of 62 years, the former Earlene Poe, a retired Baltimore County Public Schools elementary teacher; two other sons, Emmett C. Burns III of Parkville and Evers Burns, named for Medgar Evers, of Lochearn; two brothers, the Rev. Jerome Burns of Dallas and Dr. Ralph Burns of Fayetteville, North Carolina; and five grandchildren.