(photo from the Baltimore Sun)
In memoriam, Rev. Vernon Dobson, 1923-2013
Just this week a well-informed citizen leader in Washington, DC asked me “What happened to Baltimore?” Meaning its economy, meaning its port and politics, meaning its black community. As always I dipped into the inherited memory, the shared analysis, the anger-infused grief ─ what we all learned at the Vernon Dobson school of public life. Today he “went home to the Lord”, but the Lord was always “at home” at his right hand: in the coffee house, in the Laundromat, the make-shift neighborhood gym at the heart of Union Baptist Church. Amid the marble-stooped Druid Hill Avenue history ─ think Thurgood Marshall, think Juanita, Parren Mitchell, and the doctors, lawyers, and school principals whose ghosts linger into harsher times….
The least of these ─ Bobby Lee washing cars with his well-used soapy water ─ were welcomed here, and memorable. For those of us who’d missed “The Goon Squad” ─ Rev. Dobson and cohorts, their early firebrand years, there was his fierce ─“If they dare threaten ..touch a hair on your heads”─defense of low-wage workers daring to question their poverty, in their hopes of climbing Jacob’s ladder to a living wage ─A lion’s ferocity protecting its young, and he could roar, but also with laughter, recounting the antics of some irreverent caper, political prank or the blunder of some public ego. Almost never more than one levered window away from the sidewalk, the street-level stream of life chaotic and dear, the sidewalk of our first encounter in the snow.
He was shoveling in an army jacket and boots. I thought: the custodian. We later laughed, as he changed to go negotiate for the first of hundreds of new houses in Nehemiah’s name. He’d later rent a trolley and bullhorns to turn out the vote. I never heard his take on Obama’s election, the expectations, and disappointment. Hard to imagine him silent, this void. His dead-on wisdom and advice, barbershop yarns, and laughter still reverberate. To us, the hand-off: anthems, and spirituals in which we heard him loud and clear, now guide our feet ─ for we, for sure….. don’t want to run this race in vain.
by Kathleen O’Toole, former BUILD lead organizer and current Senior Organizer for VOICE