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Obituary: John Burleigh '74

John R. Burleigh II, a civil rights activist who had been chairman of the employment committee of the Congress of Racial Equality and retired from the city housing authority, died July 9, 2011 of cancer at Gilchrist Hospice Care in Towson. The longtime Hunting Ridge resident was 86.

The son of a foundryman and a homemaker, Mr. Burleigh was born in Baltimore and raised in Dorsey. He was a 1943 graduate of Wiley H. Bates High School in Annapolis and attended in Washington. He later earned a degree in urban planning and urban administration from Antioch College.

Mr. Burleigh had been executive director of Maryland Project Equality for six years and had worked for the Social Security Administration before joining the city Department of Housing and Community Development in 1974 as an equal employment opportunity officer. It was Mr. Burleigh who developed the agency's affirmative-action plan, its first, which was approved by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development in 1975. The plan established goals and timetables for improving minority and female employment, expanded procurement of supplies and purchase of services from minority firms, and urged third-party contractors to adhere to affirmative-action procedures.

"I knew him very well. He was my equal opportunity officer when I was housing commissioner from 1977 to 1983," said M.J. "Jay" Brodie, who is now president of the Baltimore Development Corp. "I thought very highly of John. He was in a tough position. While he may have been sympathetic to certain issues, he had to balance his response. These sometimes involved race, gender, discrimination and age," said Mr. Brodie. "We'd sit down and he'd tell me what we had and then we would decide a course of action whether that would be a lawsuit or the threat of one," he said. "It was a sensitive area and he performed his duties admirably."

Mr. Burleigh retired in the 1980s. His civil rights activism began during his student days at Howard, when he participated in a 1945 demonstration against Thompson's Restaurant on 14th Street Northwest in Washington, which refused service to African-Americans. Mr. Burleigh was a member of Congress for Racial Equality (or CORE) and rose to become chairman of its employment committee. In the early 1960s, he participated in the Route 40 demonstrations that were organized against restaurant owners who refused to allow African-Americans to eat in their establishments. He was also one of the early Freedom Riders from Maryland who rode to Mississippi in the summer of 1961 to protest segregation. During those years, Mr. Burleigh was a familiar figure at demonstrations in Baltimore, Crisfield, Cambridge, Ocean City and York, Pa. He was an organizer in of the 1963 demonstration at Gwynn Oak Amusement Park and served as a monitor for the CORE contingent from Baltimore during the historic March on Washington that featured the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s stirring "I Have a Dream" speech.

Mr. Burleigh was working in 1964 as a clerk at Social Security in Woodlawn, where he was chairman of the Social Security Government Employees Committee. In that role, he helped organize a demonstration protesting racial discrimination in hiring and jobs at the agency's headquarters that included civil rights heroine Gloria Richardson and comedian Dick Gregory. As CORE's employment committee chair, Mr. Burleigh challenged the Wage Commission to pay minimum wages to certain classified employees and led demonstrations against discriminatory hiring practices by area banks. As a member of the State Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, Mr. Burleigh was a participant in hearings that investigated housing discrimination in East Towson and among real estate agents, housing groups and individuals in Baltimore. "John was a great civil rights activist and conscience who lived his actions," City Councilman Carl Stokes said Tuesday. "He and his cohorts moved things and were responsible for changing the city. They knocked down barriers of discrimination for blacks and the poor," he said. "And he was always a strong advocate for affordable housing."

"He carried the torch for civil rights when some thought it was no longer fashionable or necessary," said Mr. Brodie. "We can still use a few more John Burleighs."

Mr. Burleigh, who earlier had lived in a home he restored in the city's Madison Park neighborhood, had been an active member of the city's Commission on Historical and Architectural Preservation. "In the mid-1980s, he was very involved in the creation of the special benefits district for Mount Vernon and later Madison Park," said Al Barry, a Baltimore development consultant, who described Mr. Burleigh as an "erudite gentleman."

"He was a dignified, conservative and deeply spiritual man who loved classical music, especially the pipe organ," said a friend, Dr. William A. Richards, who got to know Mr. Burleigh after he joined St. Bartholomew Episcopal Church. "His courageous record of social activism speaks for itself."

Mr. Burleigh was a member of the Hunting Ridge Community Association. A memorial service was held at his church Monday. Surviving are a sister, Catherine Johnson of Severn, and many nieces and nephews. An earlier marriage to the former Gladys Roslyn Hicks ended in divorce.