Nathan Wright Jr., 81; Minister Was Figure in 1960s Black Power Debate

Times Staff Writer

The Rev. Nathan Wright Jr., an Episcopal minister and scholar who was a leading voice in the debate over black power in the 1960s, has died. He was 81.

Wright died Feb. 22 of diabetes at his home in East Stroudsburg, Pa., according to his son, Chi Wright.

Erudite and sophisticated, Wright was the author of 18 books, many of them dealing with race in America. He also wrote poetry, a book of sermons and a volume on Christian philosophy.

In addition, he was a columnist for the Star-Ledger newspaper in Newark, N.J., and, according to his son, his writing was syndicated in 100 papers around the country. As a young man, he was a participant in the “Journey of Reconciliation,” an early effort to test the implementation of a U.S. Supreme Court decision integrating interstate bus travel.


With leaders of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee as its primary advocates, black power came to fruition as a political idea in the mid-1960s.

Faced with continued white resistance to integration in the South, key leaders of SNCC -- including Stokely Carmichael and later H. Rap Brown -- came to believe that any progress for African Americans in America could come only through independent black political power separate from whites.

This separatist idea led to divisions within the civil rights movement, with organizations such as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People and the National Urban League voicing their opposition.

Wright, serving in the Episcopal Archdiocese of Newark’s department of urban work, supported black power but was seen as a moderating public voice. His writings offered what one critic called “a benign version.”


Of his book “Let’s Work Together,” August Meier, writing in the Saturday Review magazine, noted: “Wright’s vision is not the destruction of America but the fulfillment of its ideals under the leadership of its creative black minority.”

Wright’s most influential role came as chairman of the 1967 National Conference on Black Power. The gathering, which was held in Newark and attended by more than 1,000 delegates representing 286 organizations, symbolized a major shift in African American intellectual life.

At the start of the conference, Wright told a New York Times reporter that his notion of black power depended “on the capacity of black people to be and to become themselves, not only for their own good, but for the enrichment of the lives of all.”

He also noted that whites, no matter how noble their intentions, could not solve the problems of blacks.

“People who are members of a majority group, however sympathetic they may be with those who are oppressed, can never fully identify themselves with the oppressed,” he said.

Wright was born in Shreveport, La., and raised in Cincinnati. His father sold insurance and was an active participant in the civil rights movement as head of Cincinnati’s branch of the NAACP. Wright’s mother taught school.

Wright served in the Army as a medical administrative corps officer during World War II.

He continued his college education after the war, graduating from the University of Cincinnati in 1947 and earning his doctorate in divinity at Episcopal Theology School in Cambridge, Mass. He was ordained a minister of the Episcopal Church in 1950. He also earned a doctorate in education from Harvard.


Wright joined 16 other people -- black and white, male and female -- in testing the 1946 Supreme Court decision that outlawed segregation on interstate buses. He and the others traveled in racially mixed groups from Washington, D.C., south on Trailways and Greyhound buses.

This effort, under the auspices of the Congress of Racial Equality and the Fellowship of Reconciliation, a religious peace organization, is believed by many to be America’s first freedom ride, a strategy that proved far more successful and gained far more attention many years later.

After the Newark conference, Wright went on to have an influential career in academia. He was founding chairman of the department of African and Afro-American studies at the State University of New York at Albany, and lectured widely around the country.

Showing a pragmatic approach to politics, he served on presidential task forces during the Nixon and Reagan administrations. But he also was a close friend of Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan -- officiating at his wedding.

Besides his son, Wright is survived by his wife, Pauline; four other children; eight grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren. A twin brother and a sister also survive him.