Tony Stanley ’62 B.D., pastor and civil rights activist, dies at 76

Gustav Spohn '73 M.A.R.

Eight years ago, in a Pentecost sermon at Washington National A. Knighton StanleyCathedral, the Rev. Dr. A. Knighton Stanley  ’62 B.D. grappled with the “difficult” verses in Matt. 10:34-42, where Jesus tells his disciples that he has come “not to bring peace but a sword,” “to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother . . .”  Now, in the wake of Stanley’s death on Sept. 21 of heart failure, his interpretation of that passage could be seen as a kind of guiding vision for the life he led as pastor, civil rights activist, and mentor to young people.

With the congregation gathered that morning at the Cathedral, Stanley pondered, “Could it be that Jesus, in these harsh sending out words, is calling us to a deeper, more extended meaning of family?” 

“Let me assure you,” intoned Stanley, at the time a member of the YDS Board of Advisors, “that we cannot be a city at peace until we claim all quarters of our diverse children—rich and poor, red and yellow, black, brown and white, the well-educated and the undereducated—as a part of one family; unless we claim all children as our own.

“Perhaps then, it is the purpose of Jesus’ sending out words to his disciples, not to divide them from their blood kin, but to call them into being as a new kind of family. . ., a family based not on blood kinship, but on membership in the whole family of God; membership in the Society of Jesus Christ. . .

“Church and cathedral and mosque and synagogue and shrine alike must be in this world of broken families and broken community a counter culture whose lives embody and give witness to the whole family, to the inclusive community of God.”

Indeed, as Stanley navigated a career of service spanning more than four decades from school administrator in Greensboro, NC, to associate minister in Detroit, to senior pastor in Washington, DC, his commitment to ideals of peace and justice—grounded in a vision of scripture nurtured at Yale Divinity School by the likes of professors James Gustafson, H. Richard Niebuhr, and Davie Napier—never wavered.

The Rev. Dr. Dwight Andrews '77 M.Div., '83 M.Phil., '93 Ph.D., a close friend, called Stanley “the consummate clergyperson” and said, “A giant has fallen, but his legacy will live on through all who knew him."

It was during his second year at YDS that Stanley, known affectionately throughout his life as “Tony,” considered taking a leave of absence to participate in the student-led phase of the Civil Rights Movement. However, Gustafson talked him out of it, predicting that there would still be much for the movement to do after Stanley graduated.

Upon graduating in 1962, Stanley became director of the United Southern Christian Fellowship Foundation at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical University in Greensboro, the birthplace of the student sit-ins that ultimately led to the opening of most public accommodations to blacks by the fall of 1963.   There, students sought him out to be the advisor for the Greensboro Chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality.

Civil rights leader Jessie Jackson at the time was a student at A&T, and Stanley was chosen to recruit Jackson to the movement.  That he did, and Jackson soon became the movement's new leader and spokesperson. 

In an obituary published Sept. 25 in the Washington Post, Jackson was quoted as referring to Stanley, who was 76 when he died, as his “closest teacher” prior to the civil rights marches led by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.  “He was young enough for us to relate to but old enough to set parameters for us,” said Jackson.  “He had the capacity to interpret our struggle bigger than just the daily march.”

In 1966, Stanley moved to Detroit to become associate minister of Plymouth Congregational United Church of Christ, a congregation he served for two years before accepting a call to be senior minister at historic Peoples Congregational United Church of Christ in Washington, DC. 

Stanley served at Peoples Church for nearly 40 years, retiring in 2007, after having grown the congregation from some 650 members to more than 2,200.  During his tenure, the church significantly expanded its physical presence and added numerous programs to the church’s outreach, sometimes leveraging funds from government agencies and foundations.  Among the programs created were the “Peoples Neighborhood House” social service agency partially funded by the District of Columbia and the UCC’s Board of Homeland Ministries; a Peoples Cultural Arts Program for male and female youth funded by the Kellogg Foundation, and the Peoples Scholarship awards that offered scholarships to a dozen students annually.  Invited speakers to the church during the Stanley years were luminaries such as James Baldwin, Andrew Young, Edward Kennedy, Maya Angelou, Hubert Humphrey, and Shirley Chisholm.

His civic engagements in Washington included service as director of the Office of Bicentennial Programs, vice president of the Council of Churches of Metropolitan Washington, membership on the Board of Directors of the Greater Washington United Way, and chair of the Board of Trustees of the University of the District of Columbia.

At the denominational level, Stanley’s service to the United Church of Christ was substantial.  Among other things, he was twice a delegate to the church’s General Synod, president of Ministers for Racial and Social Justice, a member of the Committee on Theological Education, a member of both the Council for Christian Social Action and Office of Communication, and a delegate to the World Alliance of Reformed Churches.

In 1974 Stanley was awarded a doctorate in ministry from Howard University.  His doctoral thesis was “Congregationalism Among Negroes in the South,” which was published as a book under the title The Children is Crying (Pilgrim Press, 1974).  In 2008, his second book appeared, A View From My Window (15 Sermons of Hope and Assurance (Cronos Press). After retiring from People’s Church, Stanley served during a brief period as minister for church development at St. Albans Congregational United Church of Christ in Queens, NY.

Andrews said, “He provided leadership and served the church at every level, as distinguished Pastor of People's Congregational Church, as a voice of wisdom to the many instrumentalities of the United Church of Christ, as a generous supporter of our colleges and seminaries, especially his beloved Yale Divinity School.

“Tony mentored scores of young clergy over the years, and I am both proud and grateful to be in that number. He reminded us all of the dignity, honor, and faithfulness of our forbears as well as the creative beauty and unity of our folk heritage in the spirituals and the blues.”

Stanley first encountered Yale Divinity School as a teenager, when his home church in Greensboro sent him to a meeting of the Pilgrim Fellowship meeting at YDS in 1953.  In 2007, more than 50 years later, he acknowledged his lifelong connection to the school with a generous gift that established the A. Knighton Stanley Scholarship in honor of his father and mother.  Awarded annually, the scholarship goes to students who are preparing to serve in minority communities, economically deprived areas, and/or the developing world.

Constance Royster, director of development at YDS, said, “Tony Stanley was totally committed to realizing the dreams of peace, justice, and equality, and the Stanley Scholarship is a fitting legacy to that vision.  In the brief time since its creation, the scholarship has already enabled several outstanding students who exemplify those ideals to earn their degrees at YDS, with the promise of many others to follow.”

Stanley is survived by a sister, Ollie Mae Stanley of Bradenton, FL; daughters Kathryn Stanley of Atlanta and Taylor Marie Stanley of Washington, DC; and a son, Nathaniel Stanley, also of Washington, DC.  His marriages to Beatrice Perry and Andrea Young ended in divorce.

A memorial service is scheduled for Oct. 10 at Peoples Church.

Memorial donations may be made to the "A. Knighton Stanley Scholarship Fund" at Yale Divinity School, 409 Prospect St., New Haven, CT. 06511


Date Posted: Tuesday, October 1, 2013 - 3:12pm