Nathan Wright Jr. Biography
Became a Fourth-Generation College Graduate, Participated in the First Freedom Ride, Moved into Academia
Minister, scholar, civil rights activist, writer
An Episcopalian minister, a scholar, a poet, and the author of 18 books, Dr. Nathan Wright Jr. was a leading advocate of the black power movement. Although Wright claimed to be ideologically close to Stokely Carmichael and H. Rap Brown, leaders of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and even Malcolm X, he was a pacifist who represented the intellectual and scholarly side of the black power movement. Wright's vision was one of black empowerment, in which blacks took their rightful place in American society through self-direction and black leadership, even if that meant separatism. He was known for mediating between warring factions within the civil rights movement.
Became a Fourth-Generation College Graduate
Nathan Wright Jr. was born on August 5, 1923, in Shreveport, Louisiana, and grew up, along with his twin brother Benjamin Hickman Wright and their sisters, in Cincinnati, Ohio. Nathan Wright Sr. was an insurance agent and the executive secretary of the Cincinnati National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Nathan Wright's mother, Parthenia (Hickman) Wright, taught school.
Nathan Wright wrote his first book, Good Manners for Good People, at the age of 15 and he won a Cincinnati Public Schools poetry award. He entered St. Augustin's College in Raleigh, North Carolina, in 1941, and subsequently attended West Virginia State College and Temple University. Wright served in the U.S. Army Medical Administrative Corps during World War II. After the war he returned to school, graduating from the University of Cincinnati in 1947. He served as the New England field representative for the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and attended the Episcopal Theological School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, earning his master's degree and bachelor's of divinity in 1950. That same year he was ordained in the Episcopal Church. Dr. Wright earned his Master of Sacred Theology degree and his doctorate in education from Harvard University, specializing in American history and philosophy.
During the 1950s and early 1960s, Wright served as rector of St. Cyprian's Church in Boston and as chaplain of Boston's Children's Medical Center. He held a variety of positions within the Episcopal Church and lectured at various colleges and universities.
Participated in the First Freedom Ride
Wright's involvement with the civil rights movement dated from 1946, when he was at the center of a protest against random searches by the Cincinnati police. The following year he joined the Journey of Reconciliation, traveling with seven other blacks and eight whites on buses and trains throughout the South, testing and publicizing the 1945 U.S. Supreme Court decision ordering the desegregation of interstate travel. The group met with arrests and some violence. Sponsored by CORE and the Fellowship of Reconciliation, the action is considered to be the first freedom ride of the civil rights era.
Years later, at the height of the civil rights movement, Wright was working in the Department of Urban Work of the Episcopal Diocese of Newark, New Jersey. In his Introduction to Ready to Riot, Wright described the fear of his wife Barbara, a daycare worker, and their 17-year-old daughter, as they drove into central Newark on the second night of what he called the "civic rebellion." It was July of 1967 and the disturbances spread quickly to other black urban areas. Ready to Riot was a sociological analysis of the conditions in black ghettos that led to the 1967 rebellions. The National Conference on Black Power was about to convene in Newark, with Dr. Wright as the organizer and chairperson. One of the first major undertakings of the black power movement, the conference brought 1,100 delegates to Newark from 42 cities and 197 black organizations. It called for blacks to build an economic power base with a "Buy Black" campaign, for the establishment of black national holidays and black universities, and broached the topic of black separatism. The conference marked a change in the civil rights movement from demanding individual rights to group solidarity. Dr. Wright was at the pinnacle of his political influence.
On political and economic matters, Wright agreed with radical leaders, including his close friend Louis Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam. However, Wright also had influenced Dr. Martin Luther King when King was a student in Boston. According to his obituary in the Los Angeles Sentinal, Wright referred to integration as "an insult on its face," because it implied that black self-worth was determined by a white majority. In 1967 he used the term "black empowerment" while testifying in favor of low-income housing before the U.S. Congress. Surprisingly, Wright was active in the Republican Party throughout his life, serving on presidential task forces during the Nixon and Reagan administrations.
Moved into Academia
Wright wrote about black consciousness and black power from a reformist rather than a revolutionary point-of-view. His plea for cooperation among races and within the black community, Let's Work Together, was published in 1968 and nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. That same year Wright began a weekly column, "Black Empowerment," for the Newark Star-Ledger. It was syndicated in nearly 100 black newspapers nationwide. In 1968 Wright also chaired the International Conference on Black Power in Philadelphia.
The following year Wright became a professor of Urban Affairs and founding chair of the Department of Afro-American Studies at the State University of New York (SUNY) at Albany. He also served as president of Empowerment Inc., a consulting firm for urban and educational affairs. In addition to his books, Wright published more than 300 articles. Although most of his writing dealt with race relations in America, he also published a volume of poetry, a book of sermons, and a book on Christian philosophy.
In 1981 Wright moved to Patterson, New Jersey, to become communications director at Passaic County Community College. In his later years he traveled extensively, lecturing on behalf of the Episcopal Church. Wright is credited with helping to maintain the church's connection to the civil rights movement and its commitments to the poor. Wright retired first to Riverdale, New York, and then to East Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania, where he died of kidney failure from complications of diabetes on February 22, 2005, at the age of 81.
The Riddle of Life, and Other Sermons, Humphries, 1952.
The Song of Mary: Poems, Bruce Humphries, 1958.
One Bread, One Body, Seabury, 1962.
Black Power and Urban Unrest: The Creative Possibilities, Hawthorn, 1967.
Let's Work Together, Hawthorn, 1968.
Ready to Riot, Holt, Rhinehart and Winston, 1968.
Let's Face Racism, Thomas Nelson, 1970.
Editor and contributor, What Black Educators Are Saying, Hawthorn, 1970.
Contributor, The Black Man in America: Integration and Separation, ed. by James A. Moss, Dell, 1971.
The University and the Politics of Racism, State University of New York, 1971.
Editor and contributor, What Black Politicians Are Saying, Hawthorn, 1972.
(Wyatt Tee Walker) Soweto Diary: The Free Elections in South Africa Featuring the Original Poetry of Nathan Wright Jr., Martin Luther King Fellows Press, 1994.
(With Jeff Manza) "Religion and Political Behavior," in Handbook of the Sociology of Religion, Michele Dillon, ed., Cambridge University Press, 2003.
"Black Power: Are Negroes Ready, Willing and Able?" The Catholic World, October 1966.
"The Colonial Mind and the Urban Condition," Renewal, Fall 1966.
"The Economics of Race," American Journal of Economics and Sociology, January 1967.
Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, Spring 2005, p. 101.
Los Angeles Times, March 4, 2005, p. B11.
New York Times, February 24, 2005, p. B11.
Sentinal (Los Angeles, CA), March 24-30, 2005, p. A14.
Star-Ledger (Newark, NJ), February 24, 2005, p. 29.
"Nathan Wright Jr.," Contemporary Authors Online, http://galenet.galegroup.com/servlet/BioRC (October 26, 2005).