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Civil rights pioneer W. Astor Kirk dies


7:00 P.M. ET August 15, 2011

W. Astor Kirk
W. Astor Kirk

W. Astor “Bill” Kirk, who spent many years fighting official and unofficial segregation in The United Methodist Church, died Friday night, Aug. 12, surrounded by his family at Washington Hospital Center. He was 89.

Kirk, a United Methodist layperson, served as a director of the public affairs department of the Board of Church and Society of The United Methodist Church from 1961 to 1966 and as the board’s interim top executive in 1987 and 1988. He played an historic role in ending institutional segregation in The United Methodist Church.

“In each of my careers, I always fought against the disparaging stereotype of being perceived as a ‘black’ or ‘African-American’ professional,” Kirk wrote in a 2008 UMNS commentary. “I wanted to be viewed, liked or disliked, and praised or criticized on my merits as a professional who incidentally happened to be black or African American.”

In 1960, while serving as a professor at Huston-Tillotson College in Austin, Texas, he was elected secretary of the Committee of Five, a group established by the Central Jurisdiction of the Methodist Church with a mandate to end racial segregation within the denomination. The Central Jurisdiction was a structure created in 1939 to segregate African-Americans within the Methodist Church.

Overcoming discrimination was a fight he knew well. He had earned a doctorate in political science at The University of Texas at Austin  — the university's first Ph.D. awarded to an African-American.

Kirk wrote numerous papers and studies for the committee analyzing the history of segregation within the denomination and recommending strategies for ending it.

The Kirk Amendment

He took a decisive step against institutional racism during a discussion concerning the merger of the Methodist and Evangelical United Brethren denominations at the 1964 General Conference of the Methodist Church.

Kirk, serving as an alternate delegate, moved an amendment to the proposed plan of merger, which included the continuation of the segregated church. Kirk’s amendment asked that "the Central Jurisdiction structure of the Methodist Church not be made a part of the Plan of Merger."

In his autobiography, Kirk wrote: "On the morning of May 5, 1964, when the Church Union Commission made its report … I was completely dumbfounded. My emotions ranged from deep anger to almost uncontrollable outrage to profound sorrow. I could not believe that as late as 1964 … the Church Union Commission would be so ethnically insensitive to the feelings of United Methodist Blacks that it would offer a repetition of the tragic mistake of 1939."    

After lengthy debate, the motion, known as "The Kirk Amendment," passed 464 to 362, establishing the denomination's commitment to end institutional segregation.

After the 1964 General Conference, when the chair of the Committee of Five, the Rev. James S. Thomas, was elected a bishop, Kirk was elected its new chair. As chair of the Committee of Five, he helped negotiate the mergers of the Delaware and North Carolina-Virginia annual conferences of the Central Jurisdiction with overlapping annual conferences.

In 1965 when southern church leaders argued before the denomination's Judicial Council that Jurisdictional Conferences had the right to preserve segregated conferences within their boundaries, Kirk took a three-month leave of absence from the Board of Church and Society to prepare a brief arguing that the denomination did have the authority to end segregated conferences. In his brief and oral argument, Kirk argued that the issue of segregation had become a “distinctively connectional matter.”

The Council's 1965 Judicial Decision No. 232 states: "We have no doubt that the creation of a racially inclusive church is now a matter ‘distinctively connectional.'"

Lifelong advocacy

Born into poverty in Texas, Kirk supported himself by working the night shift at a segregated YMCA while earning his B.A. and M.A. degrees from Howard University in Washington. He then pursued his doctorate at the University of Texas. He also completed postgraduate studies at the London School of Economics and Political Science in England as a Fulbright scholar. He later served as a regional director of the U.S. Office of Economic Opportunity and as an adjunct associate professor of organization theory in the Graduate School of Management and Technology at the University of Maryland. He was founder and CEO of the Organization Management Services Corporation.

Kirk was also an advocate for the end of discrimination against women and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people within the church. The latest of his six books, titled “Ending Institutional Discrimination within United Methodism – A Brief Interpretative History, examines the history of discrimination against African-Americans, women, and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people within the denomination.

Before his death, Kirk had prepared an omnibus resolution to end discrimination against sexual minorities, to be presented at the 2012 General Conference of The United Methodist Church. He was also scheduled later this month to lead a workshop titled “Ending Discrimination in the UMC: How Can the Past Inform the Future?” at the “Sing a New Song” national conference sponsored by the Reconciling Ministries Network and the Methodist Federation for Social Action.

Memorial arrangements

Kirk and his wife Vivian, who died in 2010, had been members of Foundry United Methodist Church in Washington since 1984, and he served in many leadership roles. He was devoted to his son William A. Kirk Jr., his late daughter Marie Kirk Dunn, daughter-in-law Hillary, his late son-in-law Reginald Dunn, and four granddaughters Ayanna, Jenelle, Allison and Stefanie.

A memorial service will be at 3 p.m. Aug. 19 at Foundry United Methodist Church.

The family has requested that memorial gifts go to Foundry United Methodist Church, 1500 16th St. NW, Washington, DC 20036, which is establishing the Dr. W. Astor and Vivian Kirk Memorial Fund.

A public viewing will be at Cedar Hill Funeral Home in Suitland, Md., from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. Aug. 18. A private ceremony for the family and interment will be Aug. 19.

*Snyder is the senior pastor of Foundry United Methodist Church in Washington.

News media contact: Maggie Hillery, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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