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Rev. Thomas Kilgore Jr., Civil Rights Leader, Dies

Obituary: Pastor of Second Baptist Church for 22 years, he helped organize historic 1963 march on Washington.

February 05, 1998|KAREN ROBINSON-JACOBS and JOHN DART | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

The Rev. Thomas Kilgore Jr., who helped organize the historic 1963 civil rights march on Washington and founded the Los Angeles chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, died Wednesday at the age of 84.

Kilgore died in Good Samaritan Hospital after a life dedicated to social service. "He was a living legend," said the Rev. William Epps, who succeeded Kilgore as senior pastor at Second Baptist Church, the oldest African American Baptist church in Los Angeles. Kilgore served as pastor there for 22 years.

A native of Woodruff, S.C., Kilgore "was always on the cutting edge of blending spirituality and community involvement," Epps said. "He knew that to be spiritual meant you had to have a positive impact on making this a better community."

Merging two missions--service to God and to country--was the hallmark of Kilgore's calling, said those who knew him.

Kilgore was well known in local political circles, acting as an advisor to former Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley and serving for many years on the powerful Community Redevelopment Agency.

Said City Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas: "It's hard to think of any civil rights leader who stepped forward with more organizational and bridge-building skills than Tom."

Even before the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. became the internationally known leader of the civil rights movement, Kilgore was at work in the pulpit of the Friendship Baptist Church in New York, raising bail money for jailed civil rights workers in the South.

In a historic photo of King's 1963 march, a smiling, bespectacled Kilgore can be seen just behind King.

In Los Angeles in the early 1960s, he and about a dozen other prominent African American ministers formed an alliance that was the forerunner of the local chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the only SCLC chapter west of the Rockies.

Reaching out beyond the African American community, Kilgore was instrumental in forming a "sister" relationship 25 years ago with the socially progressive Wilshire Boulevard Temple, exchanging guest pulpit appearances with Rabbis Edgar Magnin, now deceased, and Alfred Wolf.

"Tom was certainly a friendly, well-informed man, but he was also very firm on any opinion he had," recalled Wolf.

The Second Baptist-Wilshire Boulevard pairing became a "model for what can be accomplished in these relationships," added Rabbi Harvey Fields, current spiritual leader at Wilshire Boulevard Temple. "The relationship carries on to this day."

Fields said that after the 1992 riots, Kilgore was one of the first to encourage the formation of the Interfaith Coalition to Heal L.A., an ecumenical group dedicated to promoting cross-cultural dialogue.

"He was an ecumenical figure, he was an interracial figure, he was a multicultural figure," said the Rev. Cecil "Chip" Murray, who knew Kilgore for more than 20 years. "He was one of the great community organizers and one of the great ministers."

Msgr. Royale Vadakin, who headed ecumenical relations for many years in the Los Angeles Catholic Archdiocese, added:

"He had a unique breadth of concern and knowledge. He was really beloved in his own congregation while having a national dimension."

Kilgore was one of the few ministers of any race to serve as president of two national Baptist denominations--the largely white American Baptist Churches, USA (1969-70) and the mostly African American Progressive National Baptist Convention (1976-78).

A 1935 graduate of Morehouse College in Atlanta, Kilgore devoted considerable time and energy to encouraging educational institutions to be more socially responsible.

Alvin S. Rudisill, former associate vice president for civic and community relations at USC, recalled recommending that Kilgore give a baccalaureate address there in 1972.

Before a stunned crowd, including former USC President John Hubbard, Kilgore chided the school for its indifference to the surrounding neighborhood.

Afterward, Kilgore was asked to serve as a special advisor to the USC president on community affairs issues. That office later became the post held by Rudisill.

"One of the wonderful things about Tom is that when he [saw] an opportunity to express an opinion about an inequity or inequality, he [didn't] pull punches," said Rudisill.

Saying that Kilgore had an "enormous" impact on USC and the surrounding neighborhood, USC President Steven Sample added: "Many of our earliest community initiatives were launched with the aid of Tom Kilgore. We will miss him deeply."

Kilgore is survived by his wife, Jeannetta; two daughters, Lynn Elda and Jini Medina, who is also a minister; and three grandchildren.

Funeral arrangements are pending. Services will be at Second Baptist Church. Burial will be in North Carolina.

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