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Rev. Gilbert H. Caldwell, civil rights ‘foot soldier’ from Selma to Black Lives Matter, dies at 86

Rev. Gilbert H. Caldwell, speaking at a Black Lives Matter rally in Willingboro, N.J. in June, was known for his civil rights and LGBTQ activism.
Rev. Gilbert H. Caldwell, speaking at a Black Lives Matter rally in Willingboro, N.J. in June, was known for his civil rights and LGBTQ activism.Aaron Wilson Watson

Stepping up in 1968 from leading the South End’s Methodist church to becoming the first Black district superintendent of the denomination’s New England conference, the Rev. Gilbert H. Caldwell knew his mere presence would educate many he met.

“When whites see me,” he told the Globe that September, “they should be reminded that there is unfinished business in America vis-a-vis the Black community.”

Calling himself a “foot soldier” in the civil rights movement, Rev. Caldwell found that those battles were without end. In June, he spoke at a Black Lives Matter rally in New Jersey, and in 2014, he had officiated a same-sex marriage in defiance of his denomination’s policies.

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Rev. Caldwell, who wrote about his activism for publications including the Globe and the Huffington Post, was 86 when he died of cancer Sept. 4 in New Brunswick, N.J. He had resided in New Jersey in recent years so that he and his wife, whose health is failing, could live near one of their sons.

As a Boston University School of Theology student in the late 1950s, he met the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. A few years later, he introduced King as a speaker at a Boston demonstration against school segregation.

Rev. Caldwell, who marched with King in Alabama from Selma to Montgomery, often quoted his friend’s words, giving them new life in modern contexts.

In an essay about the first LGBTQ wedding he officiated, which took place on Martin Luther King Day weekend in 2014, Rev. Caldwell wrote that "I have used these words of Martin Luther King to guide my activism, not just for people of African descent, but for all justice struggles: ‘Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.’ "

Bishop Woodie White, who is retired and considered Rev. Caldwell a mentor and friend, told United Methodist News that “his commitment to racial justice and inclusiveness was unyielding, whether in the church or nation.”

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In 2008, 40 years after King was slain, Rev. Caldwell spoke in a Globe interview about how the legacies of King and civil rights icon Rosa Parks continue to inform activists. “We must all find the Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks within us,” he said.

Rev. Caldwell added that “King’s cause was American, and King’s people were all of God’s people.”

That approach to civil rights and human rights led to his LGBTQ activism, which included collaborating with Marilyn Bennett on the 2016 documentary “From Selma to Stonewall: Are We There Yet?”

He had also worked with the Reconciling Ministries Network, which advocates for LGBTQ inclusiveness within the United Methodist Church.

“As one who had attended the March on Washington, participated in the Selma to Montgomery March, spent a summer in what was called the Mississippi Freedom Summer, and introduced Martin Luther King as he spoke on Boston Common, I believe that marriage equality for same-sex couples is in the best tradition of the Civil Rights Movement,” he wrote in 2014.

Rev. Caldwell had also served on the national board of the LGBTQ advocacy organization PFLAG.

“I considered Rev. Caldwell a real role model for how to do the work within faith communities, and within communities of color,” Jean Hodges, a former PFLAG board president, said in a statement, adding that "PFLAGers everywhere have lost a real champion for inclusion.”

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The third of four children and the only son, Gilbert Haven Caldwell was born in Greensboro, N.C., in 1933.

Like his father, he was named for Gilbert Haven, a prominent, Malden-born abolitionist who, in the late 1800s, was a bishop of the Methodist Episcopal Church.

While growing up, Rev. Caldwell lived in a few communities and spent much of his youth in Texas as his father, the Rev. Gilbert Haven Caldwell Sr., moved from church to church.

His mother, Julia Brown Caldwell, was a descendant of the Rev. Morris Brown, a founder and second presiding bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church.

Growing up in the South’s segregated neighborhoods, attending segregated schools and churches, Gilbert Caldwell “saw the inhumanity of discrimination,” said his son, Dale G. Caldwell of New Brunswick, N.J.

He graduated with a bachelor’s degree in sociology from North Carolina A&T State University, a historically Black university in Greensboro, N.C.

In 1957, he married Grace Dungee, who taught school and worked in school libraries for about 50 years.

They had honeymoon reservations at Mount Airy Resort in Pennsylvania, in the Poconos, but were turned away because of their race upon arriving after a several-hour drive. They had to stay at a hunting lodge.

“Men with these big guns,” Grace Caldwell told CBS News in 2018. “Not what we were planning on.”

That experience, their son said, “spurred him to become a civil rights activist.”

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In retirement, the couple spoke about that incident when they addressed groups, including students. After they told fifth-graders at a New Jersey elementary school, the children wrote a letter to the resort asking that it give the Caldwells an all-expenses-paid second honeymoon to right the earlier wrong. The resort agreed to do so.

After finishing his undergraduate studies in the mid-1950s, he applied to Duke Divinity School in Durham, N.C., but was turned down — the school began accepting Black students in 1961.

Instead, he headed north to the BU School of Theology, from which he graduated with a degree in sacred theology. In 1958, Rev. Caldwell was a leader of the student association, and when King visited Boston, he sought him out to speak to the students.

“I called the hotel where he was staying asking for Dr. Martin King,” Rev. Caldwell said in an interview posted on a BU website. “Lo and behold, they put the call in to his room and he picked up the phone.”

Their friendship would later include marching side by side when King visited Boston in 1965 for a school segregation protest.

The year that he met King, Rev. Caldwell became the first Black minister assigned to serve a predominantly white-membership church in West Duxbury. From there he moved to Union United Methodist Church in the South End, before being appointed district superintendent.

Over the course of his ministry, which took him to Denver and other states, he served five predominantly Black-membership and four predominantly white-membership churches. He also was a founding member of Black Methodists for Church Renewal.

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“He got energy from addressing injustices,” his son said. “He really believed that you can’t judge people, that we’re all equal.”

A service has been held for Rev. Caldwell, who in addition to his wife and son leaves another son, Paul of Columbia, Md., and a granddaughter, Ashley, who is “so much like my dad,” Dale said, "and he was just so proud of her.

Though Rev. Caldwell participated in historic civil rights marches in the 1960s, and often was asked to revisit those memories, he was focused on the politics of the present, including Black Lives Matter and LGBTQ equality.

“I’ve been disappointed that many of my civil rights movement colleagues have not joined me in being ally-advocates of gay rights,” he said in the BU interview, and added: “I’m hoping that what I say will speak to the future.”


Bryan Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.