John Harris Burt; clergyman fought for civil, women’s rights

By Elaine Woo
Los Angeles Times / November 1, 2009

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LOS ANGELES - John Harris Burt, a retired bishop who advanced a tradition of social activism at Pasadena’s All Saints Episcopal Church with his bold support of the civil rights movement when he was rector in the 1960s, died Oct. 20 at his home on Lake Superior outside Marquette, Mich. He was 91.

Bishop Burt died after a long illness, said his daughter, Susan.

A friend of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Bishop Burt helped organize massive civil rights rallies in Los Angeles, including a 1963 event in South Los Angeles that attracted 30,000 people. He also was a vocal supporter of César Chávez and the farm workers’ movement.

Bishop Burt was one of four rectors “who really shaped All Saints to be a peace and justice church,’’ said Rector J. Edwin Bacon, who currently leads the Pasadena church, one of Southern California’s largest and most liberal.

It is known for its outspoken clergy and the strong stands it has taken against war, poverty, and racial and ethnic discrimination over the past seven decades, beginning in 1942 when Rector Frank Scott stood in front of trains to protest the removal of Japanese-American citizens to internment camps during World War II. Bishop Burt, who succeeded Scott in 1957, became known over the next decade for his courageous support of King.

In 1963, Bishop Burt sat in the first row behind the podium in South Los Angeles at Wrigley Field (later demolished), where King addressed what was then the largest civil rights rally held in the city. It raised thousands of dollars to support King’s non- violent crusade against racial inequality in the South, including $20,000 pledged by entertainer Sammy Davis Jr., one of several celebrities who spoke at the rally.

In 1964, Bishop Burt again sat behind King as the civil rights leader addressed 15,000 people at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum for an interfaith rally called “Religious Witness for Human Dignity.’’

His vocal backing of King caused some worshipers to leave All Saints; an anonymous caller threatened to bomb Bishop Burt’s house. When a group of church trustees asked him to stop preaching about racial issues, “he said he was always open for people to come and share their dissent with him, but the pulpit at All Saints is free,’’ said George F. Regas, who succeeded him as rector.

Bishop Burt believed that so strongly that he “felt obligated the next Sunday to preach on racial justice,’’ Regas said.

Bishop Burt was born in Marquette, where his father, Bates, was a community activist and rector of the Episcopal church, St. Paul’s.

Bishop Burt graduated from Amherst College in 1940. After postgraduate studies at Columbia University and a stint as a social worker on New York’s Lower East Side, he entered Episcopal Theological Seminary in Virginia and was ordained in 1943.

During World War II, he served as a Navy chaplain in the Pacific theater. After the war, he served at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Youngstown, Ohio, where he helped lead efforts to racially integrate swimming pools and housing.

In 1957, he arrived at All Saints in Pasadena, where he was active in civic matters as president of the Pasadena Community Planning Council. He also was president of the Southern California Council of Churches and vice chairman of the United Nations Association of Southern California.

In 1967, he became the eighth bishop of Ohio. An early advocate for the ordination of women, he vowed to resign as bishop if the Episcopal General Convention did not approve the ordination of women priests in 1976. The measure succeeded, and in early 1977, he ordained the first of eight women he would elevate to the priesthood during his 17-year tenure as bishop.

In 1978, he helped found a coalition of ecumenical and political leaders to keep steel plants open in Youngstown, Ohio, with proposals that included allowing workers to buy the mills.

The effort failed, but his advocacy earned him the Thomas Merton Award, which previously had been given to activists Dorothy Day, Joan Baez, and Dick Gregory.