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Rev. John N. Doggett Jr. obituary: Minister, civil rights activist and civic leader

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 23, 2011 - The Rev. John Doggett Jr., a Methodist minister who quietly helped to break the bonds of injustice during the civil rights movement on the West Coast and in St. Louis, died May 15 at Parc Provence in Creve Coeur following a long illness. He was 93.

Funeral services were held Saturday at Union Memorial United Methodist Church.

As 13 young people, who came to be known as the Freedom Riders, prepared to take a bus from Washington, D.C., to test new anti-segregation laws, and as many more were becoming engaged in sit-ins, defiantly integrating lunch counters, Rev. Doggett was helping to make it all possible.

It was the 1960s and Rev. Doggett was devoting his attention to organizing fundraisers in Los Angeles that would aid civil rights efforts in the South. He served as chairperson of two freedom rallies for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) missions in support of the sit-ins and Freedom Rides.

"He was committed to doing whatever he could to end discrimination," said Frankie Freeman, a retired civil rights attorney. "He lived the life he preached about."

Mobilizing Against Discrimination

John Nelson Doggett was born April 3, 1918, in Philadelphia, the youngest son of John Nelson Doggett Sr. and Winola Ballard Doggett. He graduated from Lincoln University in Philadelphia in 1942 and from Union Theological Seminary in New York with a master's of divinity in 1945.

In the early '40s, Rev. Doggett was a youth minister at Spring Lake Church, in New Jersey, and Church of the Master and Salem Methodist Church, both in New York.

Rev. Doggett moved to San Francisco in 1945, where he was Chaplain at Southgate Community Church in a well-known black neighborhood called Hunter's Point. Two years later, he co-founded Downs United Methodist Church in Oakland, Calif. He moved to southern California in 1949, and became pastor of Scott United Methodist Church in Pasadena.

While serving at Scott United Methodist, he co-presented tenor Roland Hayes in concert. Hayes, believed to be the first African-American male concert artist to receive worldwide acclaim, demanded that his concert audiences not be segregated.

Rev. Doggett and his first wife, Frances, the first African-American school teacher at Garfield Elementary School in Pasadena in 1950, also sought to desegregate their new city. They worked with African-Americans in Pasadena to create a movement for integration and job opportunities in the predominantly white "City of Roses."

"Giving people hope that they can make a difference was the principal thing for my father," said Rev. Doggett's youngest son, Bill. "Giving a person's vision of their potential was the whole mission of his work over the decades." Rev. Doggett later moved to Los Angeles where he led Hamilton Methodist Church, the location for many of the city's early civil rights events. During his time in Los Angeles, he also became treasurer of the Western Christian Leadership Conference and worked closely with the local NAACP.

Rev. Doggett's marriage ended in divorce. He left Los Angeles during the summer of 1964, bringing with him his faith, his civic leadership and his gentle brand of activism to St. Louis. For the next 13 years, he served as pastor of Union Memorial Methodist Church. He was later named pastor of Grace United Methodist Church.

Leading The NAACP

After arriving in St. Louis, he became even more active with the NAACP, serving as the local organization's president from 1971 to 1981. In 1994, Rev. Doggett received the Urban League of Metropolitan St. Louis' Award of Merit for his work with the NAACP and for a "lifetime of breaking down racial barriers in both religious and secular communities."

"During his time as NAACP president," Freeman said, "I believe we had the largest number of members ever."

Some of those numbers were thanks to Rev. Doggett's wife, Juanita. For 20 years, Juanita Doggett, worked to boost the local NAACP chapter.

Together, the Doggetts had been fixtures for three decades in St Louis civic and educational leadership, with Juanita Doggett taking the lead in the educational area. She had been an educator in the St Louis Public schools for 50 years, including 24 years as principal of Sherman Elementary School. 

Rev. Doggett also served as parliamentarian for the St Louis Metropolitan Clergy Coalition, as chairman of Central Medical Center and on the board of the Missouri Historical Society. He was also a member of the St Louis chapter of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity and was a member with his wife, Juanita, of the Charmaine Chapman Society, a leadership giving initiative of the United Way of Greater St. Louis.

Rev. Doggett played the saxophone passionately but only for pleasure, his only sibling was the "real" musician. His brother, William "Bill" Ballard Doggett, was a jazz pianist and organist who wrote arrangements for many bandleaders and performers, including Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald, and a 1956 hit rock and roll album, "Honky Tonk."

Rev. Doggett was preceded in death by his parents, his brother and his wife, Juanita T. Doggett, who died last year.

In addition to his son Bill (William Ballard Doggett II) of San Francisco, Rev. Doggett is survived by two other sons, Kenneth Riddick of St. Louis, and John Nelson (Haiping Tang) Doggett III of Austin, Tex.; one daughter, Lorraine Doggett (Curt) Melton of Charlotte, N.C., and a grandson, Deevino Williams of St. Louis.

Memorials may be sent to the John N. Doggett Scholarship Fund, St. Paul School of Theology, Development Office, 5123 East Truman Road, Kansas City, Mo. 64127, or call 816-483-9600, ext. 116.

"I hope that the generation behind him will follow in his footsteps," Freeman said.

Gloria Ross is the head of Okara Communications and the storywriter for AfterWords, an obituary-writing and production service. 

Gloria S. Ross is the head of Okara Communications and AfterWords, an obituary-writing and design service.