Baltimore’s “prophetic voice” went silent this week.
The Rev. Vernon Dobson, a tireless advocate for equality and justice and one of the city’s preeminent religious, community and civil rights leaders, died in the early hours of Jan. 26 from the complications of a stroke. He was 89.
“For people who care about equality and fairness, a great, loud voice for justice has been silenced today. Rev. Dobson was an incredible agitator,” said Tessa Hill-Aston, president of the Baltimore branch of the NAACP.
“He did not want us to ever become comfortable with injustice or discrimination.”
Dobson’s hard-wired belief in the cause of equality was forged very early on, and he remained dedicated to that fight throughout his life.
“He got started through his parents,” said daughter Sharon Dobson, 63. “He used to go with my grandmother to protest downtown or wherever she saw injustice.”
Born Oct. 29, 1923, Dobson graduated from Frederick Douglass High School and joined the U.S. Navy in 1940. He studied at Howard University on the G.I. Bill, earning two degrees, and upon graduation, he worked as a probation officer and as recreation manager at Knox Presbyterian Church.
But, as the son of a minister, Dobson’s heart lay in the church. By 1958, he was serving as assistant pastor of Union Baptist Church in Baltimore’s west side.
And, he went on to serve as the church’s pastor for 40 years until his retirement in 2007. In that capacity, Dobson mentored many young ministers and served as a leader and visionary for the Black ministerial fraternity.
“His passing will leave a major void in the Baltimore religious community because for many years he’s been its prophetic voice,” said the Rev. A.C.D. Vaughn, pastor of Sharon Baptist Church and a lifelong friend of Dobson’s since their days in Sunday school.
For example, it was under his leadership that the Baptist Ministers’ Conference finally accepted women into its membership rolls.
He also envisioned the role of the Black church as one of servant-leader in the communities that surrounded or most needed them, and was greatly concerned that the modern church was being seduced by the materialism of the age, loved ones said.
“We are committed as a church to the servant’s role; so that the needs of people dictate where we are and what we’re doing at any moment in history,” Dobson told the AFRO in June 1979.
That role, he added, was especially necessary within the beleaguered Black community.
“The church is the last sentinel between survival or death for a people,” he said.
Dobson “sincerely” tried to live out the teachings of Jesus Christ—as preached by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.—to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, shelter the shelterless, and set free the captive, said the Rev. Dr. Harold Carter, pastor emeritus, Shiloh Baptist Church.
Dobson was known for his selfless service and his willingness to interact with and personally serve the needs of “everyday” folk.
“He was an [ardent] spokesman for issues concerning poor people and those who had been overlooked by the social system,” Carter said. “He was always a great advocate for persons who would otherwise not have a voice” and spoke truth to power “without fear or trembling.”
Dobson used his influence as a pastor to advance the cause of civil rights and became heavily involved in the movement during the 1950s and 1960s. He was a member of the storied “Goon Squad,” a cadre of Black leaders that included Parren J. Mitchell; Samuel T. Daniels, leader of the Prince Hall Masons; the Rev. Marion Bascom; Madeline W. Murphy, civil rights activist; then Morgan State University professors Homer Favor and Pat Scott; the Rev. Wendell H. Phillips and others who led the civil rights struggles in Maryland.
In the summer of 1963, Dobson and his compatriots waged the successful effort to desegregate Gwynn Oak amusement park.
Later in the summer, Dobson arranged buses from Baltimore to the March on Washington, which he helped, organize. He also joined King in the 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery, Ala.
In 1968, after the King assassination triggered riots in cities across the nation, Dobson stepped up again. Together with developer James Rouse, he founded the Maryland Food Bank to aid those who were displaced in the chaos.
Almost a decade later, Dobson was still active in the movement and co-founded BUILD-- Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development—to harness the energy of a new generation in continuing the work of justice and equality.
Under his guidance, BUILD led the effort to rebuild Sandtown, to effect passage of the first living wage bill in Baltimore, to create Child First and other major initiatives of the organization’s first 30 years, according to Bishop Douglas Miles, pastor of Koinonia Baptist Church and former leader of BUILD.
“His sense of social justice was the beacon light for both BUILD and the Baltimore community,” said Miles, who counted Dobson as a mentor.
“He mentored a generation of social activist ministers,” the minister added. “His presence will be sorely missed as both a leader of his generation and an inspiration to the generation that followed.”
Dobson’s death—not even 12 months after the passing of Bascom, another noted civil rights leader—creates a vacuum of Black leadership in the city that young ministers will have to fill, Miles added.
“We’ve lost about all of those who were preeminent in the civil rights movement,” he said. “And it’s now our responsibility to live up to their legacy and restore the Black Church to its place of integrity, influence and love in the African-American community.”