BY KATHLEEN O'TOOLE
In memoriam, Rev. Vernon Dobson, 1923-2013
Just this week a well-informed citizen
in Washington, DC asked; “What happened
to Baltimore?” Meaning its economy, meaning
its port and politics, meaning its black community.
As always, I dip into the inherited memory,
shared analysis, the grief turned to anger ─ 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 gym
jammed into the heart of Union Baptist Church.
On marble-stooped, history-steeped Druid Hill
Avenue (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, Reverend Dobson and crew,
in their early firebrand years, there was his fierce
defense of low-wage workers daring to question
their poverty, in the hopes of climbing Jacob’s ladder
to a living wage.
A lion’s ferocity
protecting its young, and he could roar,
but with laughter, recounting the antics of
an irreverent caper, political prank or the blunder
of some over-inflated public ego. Almost never
more than one levered window away
from the sidewalk, that street-level stream
of life, chaotic and dear ─ the sidewalk
of our first encounter in the snow.
Him shoveling, in army jacket and boots.
I thought: the custodian. We would soon laugh,
as he suited up to negotiate for hundreds
of new homes in the prophet Nehemiah’s
name. He used to rent a trolley and bullhorns
to turn out the vote. I never got to hear
his take on Obama’s election ─ high hopes
or disappointment. Hard to imagine Rev’s
voice silenced, this void. His dead-on wisdom
and barbershop yarns, booming laughter still
reverberate. To us the hand-off: anthems,
spirituals in which we heard his baritone
loud and clear:: Guide our feet … for we,
for sure …don’t want to run this race in vain.
- Kathleen O’Toole, former lead organizer, BUILD