Walter Fauntroy
National Visionary

Born February 6, 1933 in Washington, DC

Pastor, Civil Rights activist, Delegate to the U.S. House of Representatives from the District of Columbia

Throughout his career, Walter E. Fauntroy has linked his Christian values with nonviolent civil disobedience to bring about social change and justice. His work in the Civil Rights Movement and in the U.S. Congress helped end racial discrimination and poverty in America and eliminate huma rights abuses across the African diaspora.  

As a child, Fauntroy participated in the Boys Clubs of Washington and the Boy Scouts of America.  He says he learned the importance of being “physically fit, mentally awake and morally straight.”  However, it was the church that inspired him to do more with his life and for his people.

While a student at Patterson Junior High School, he wrote an essay about how a career in ministry would allow him to help his community.  By the time he was 17, Fauntroy had preached his first sermon at New Bethel Baptist Church and made the first step towards a lifelong commitment to the pastorate.

In 1950, Fauntroy entered Virginia Union University and majored in history.  He graduated in 1955 cum laude and was accepted by Yale University to study divinity on a scholarship.  While at Yale, fellow student Wyatt T. Walker asked if Fauntroy would provide overnight lodging for a friend who was on his way to Boston to begin doctoral studies.  Fauntroy obliged.  He and his guest engaged in an all-night discussion about theology, the philosophy of Mahatma Gandhi and how to combat racism in America.  Fauntroy’s guest was Martin Luther King, Jr. and the encounter marked the beginning of a long friendship and partnership in the struggle for civil rights.

In 1957, Fauntroy married Dorothy Simms.  He graduated from Yale in 1958 and in 1959 became the pastor of New Bethel at the age of 25. Early in his pastorate, Fauntroy began to experiment with nonviolent civil disobedience.  He organized students to picket local Woolworth stores and other businesses that refused black patronage.  Dr. King recognized Fauntroy’s work and appointed him director of the D.C. Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in 1960.  By 1961, Fauntroy had helped strategize the Freedom Rides and in 1963 he coordinated SCLC’s involvement in the March on Washington.

After the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, many activists wondered about the fate of the Civil Rights Movement, but Fauntroy and King urged the new president, Lyndon B. Johnson to push for civil rights legislation. Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, but it lacked provisions for enforcing the rights of blacks to register and vote in the South.  King called for a demonstration in Selma, Alabama to bring the issue to the public’s awareness which Fauntroy coordinated.  As tension escalated, King asked Fauntroy and religious leaders from around the country to press the president for legislation that became the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

After Dr. King’s assassination in 1968, Fauntroy worked with other civil rights leaders to stage the protest that King was organizing at the time of his death, The Poor People's Campaign.  Fauntroy then focused attention on his Washington, D.C community.  D.C. was one of many cities that erupted into violence due following the assassination.  Fauntroy asked President Richard M. Nixon to visit the riot-torn neighborhoods of D.C. and convinced him to provide millions in federal grants for housing and social programs.  Through his hard work, Fauntroy later received Nixon’s support to establish representation for the District of Columbia in Congress.

This interview has
been archived in the
NVLP Collection of
African American
Oral Histories at the
Library of Congress
American Folklife
Fauntroy’s life as a politician began in 1971 when he became D.C.'s first elected Delegate to the U.S. Congress in the 20th century.  He was a founding member of the Congressional Black Caucus which he later chaired from 1981-1983.  As congressman, he designed the “Home Rule Charter” that allowed D.C. residents to elect a mayor and city council.  He also initiated the campaign for D.C. statehood in 1975.  In 1990, he left Congress and ran for mayor of D.C., but was defeated by Sharon Pratt Kelly.

Today, Fauntroy lives with his wife in the Shaw district of Washington, the neighborhood of his youth.  He is the recipient of the Hubert Humphrey Humanitarian Award from the National Urban Coalition and honorary doctorates from Georgetown University Law School, Yale University, Howard University and Virginia Union University.  He continues as pastor of New Bethel Church and remains active in community development.  He was active in the struggle to end apartheid in South Africa, and is honorary chairman of the Sudan Campaign, which he co-founded in 2001 to address issues of poverty and suffering in the African nation.


Walter Fauntroy's Wikipedia page

URL (Click to bookmark): http://www.visionaryproject.org/fauntroywalter