America, in the years immediately following World War II, began to emerge into an era of rapidly expanding economic growth and social opportunity. All across the nation, veterans and their families were moving into new suburban communities and seizing the promise of a new American prosperity.
But, for the Negro veteran, America seemed determined to perpetuate the system of discrimination and denial that had long constrained opportunities and shortened the horizons of millions of families.
Brutal racism shaped virtually every aspect of life for America’s ‘colored’ citizens; segregated education, discrimination in employment, restrictive covenants in housing and the denial of such basic rights as the right to vote and access to public accommodations thwarted the hopes and aspirations of African Americans in many communities, north as well as south. Yet, the grace of God gave light, even in this darkness.
Courageous men and women continued to struggle against the scourge of American apartheid. Through their faith, their labors, their sacrifices and their courage, they sustained a hope that there would come a better day.
Baltimore has a long and distinguished history in confronting bigotry in government policy and in the life of society at large. Soldiers in the long grim battle against racial bias include Frederick Douglass, Dr. Harvey Johnson, John H. Murphy Sr., Lillie Mae Jackson, Thurgood Marshall and Clarence Mitchell Jr. These and countless others fought valiantly from behind the walls of discrimination.
By the middle of the twentieth century, however, this community was blessed by the emergence of a visionary who was also gifted with the skills of organization and persuasion that would help to shape a world more characterized by opportunity and less by oppression. That visionary was Vernon Dobson.
Vernon Dobson, as a recent graduate of Howard University and the son of Spencer Dobson, then pastor of First Baptist of Pimlico and, later, founder of St. Mark’s, had a rich heritage in the local church. He saw the frailty of human society as a failure to recognize the possibility of what he called “the beloved community.”
The idea of God’s beloved community was as old as the scriptural admonitions to “loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the heavy burden, to let the oppressed go free.” For uncounted generations men have struggled to make real the promise of ‘peace on earth, goodwill toward men.’
Vernon Dobson saw in the beloved community, God’s intention for humanity that included freedom and equality for all. Like the prophets spoken of in the Book of Hebrews, he “looked for a city which has foundations, whose builder and maker is God.”
Young Mr. Dobson began, immediately after graduating from Howard University, to seek and shape the beloved community through his work as a probation officer alongside his friends Parren Mitchell, who would later serve in the U.S. Congress and Joe Howard, destined to become a federal judge.
These men developed innovative approaches to the rehabilitation of probationers, using recreational and vocational opportunities as the poles of a methodology that gave young men a dignity they had never known.
Beginning at Knox Presbyterian and, later, at Union Baptist, Vernon Dobson brought his theological training to bear on the issues holding the community hostage. He was extraordinarily adept at marshaling talent, drawing many bright minds and willing hands into the movement for civil rights. He forged a life-long friendship with a young James Rouse, later to become the guru of modern urban development worldwide.
While at Knox they began an abiding friendship and, later they would frequently collaborate on community building projects throughout the area.
Dobson’s courage stood him in good stead while he confronted discrimination in education and public accommodations. He was gifted with a compassion that led him to help found the Maryland Food Bank. His vision and leadership were driving forces behind B.U.I.L.D. as they re-built the Sandtown neighborhood into a model of urban development.
For 40 years he led Union Baptist Church in establishing the high standards for the integration of worship and social engagement. The Black United Front, which met at Union Baptist during his pastorate, became a powerful think tank that drew the best minds around and helped to usher in the great political gains of the 1970s and beyond. His ideas, along with those of Drs. Homer Favor, Marion Bascom and Samuel Daniels helped to enlighten the entire community through the broadcast program ‘Look at it This Way’.
Speaking of Jesus Christ, God promised Moses in Deuteronomy 18:18 that He would “…raise them up a Prophet from among their brethren, like unto thee, and I will put my words in his mouth, and he shall speak unto them all that I command him.” Vernon Nathaniel Dobson, in following the example of Christ, was such a prophet for our time. In his preaching, in his leadership, by his example he worked to make the world of men like the world intended by God. He saw and worked toward the building of God’s beloved community.
The Rev. Reginald Wade Lawrence, pastor of St. Mark’s Institutional Baptist Church in Baltimore, can be reached at email@example.com.