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courageous memphis minister, Brooks Ramsey, dies shortly after losing his wife of 75 years

Stood by MLK in Albany, Ga., against segregation in Memphis

Rebecca and Brooks Ramsey (Submitted)

The Rev. Dr. Brooks Ramsey, a minister whose self-described “wide-angle view of God” clashed with his white Baptist congregations in the 1960s, died Friday in Evanston, Illinois. He was 98.

Ramsey, a pastor and counselor who served Memphis churches in six denominations, was preceded in death by his wife of 75 years, Rebecca Jackson Ramsey, who died two weeks ago on April 3. She was 93. They both had recently moved into a skilled-nursing facility near their son’s home in Evanston.

Mrs. Ramsey died of complications from a stroke she suffered last November. Ramsey had been under hospice care after being diagnosed with cancer last summer.

“Mom was the love, strength and inspiration of his life,” said their son, Tim Ramsey of Evanston.

Ramsey, who was born and raised in Memphis, spent his first 25 years as a church pastor trying to reconcile what he believed was the inclusive love of Christ with what he experienced as the exclusionary demands of his congregations.

He drew national attention in 1962 when he was senior pastor of First Baptist Church in Albany, Georgia.

He spoke from the pulpit in favor of integration and attended bi-racial ministerial meetings to try to reduce tensions in Albany. In 1962, he joined a handful of other ministers there and met secretly with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who was there to support a voting rights campaign.

King “had a calming presence. He radiated a peaceful strength. I have experienced such an aura with few people,” Ramsey told the opens in a new windowMemphis Flyer in 2001.

When black civil rights workers in Albany tried to deliver a letter in favor of reconciliation to Ramsey’s church, the deacons had them arrested. Ramsey was outraged.

”This is Christ’s church,” Ramsey said. “And neither I nor anyone else can build walls around it that He did not build! There is no white wall around this particular church and no colored wall around a black one. In my opinion, any group that calls itself a church should be open to all!”

The couple received obscene phone calls and death threats. The Ku Klux Klan burned a cross at a rally in his honor. But Mrs. Ramsey encouraged him to stay and he did, even though some members of his congregation voted to fire him.

A year later, he got a call from his hometown to become senior pastor of Second Baptist Church. There, Ramsey led the congregation’s effort to build a new church on Walnut Grove.

In 1968, he invited a Nigerian minister to speak in the pulpit. He publicly supported striking Memphis sanitation workers, and he marched with other clergy to City Hall a day after King, in the city to support them as well, was assassinated. He eulogized King from the pulpit.

Amid turmoil in the congregation, Ramsey voluntarily resigned. Some accused him of “being involved in too many books” and being “too liberal in his thinking.” But in a special called meeting that September, the congregation voted not to accept his resignation. Instead, they dismissed deacons and finance committee members. Ramsey stayed another year. 

Rev. Nicholas Vieron, a retired Greek Orthodox priest, was among the clergy who marched to City Hall in 1968. He said Ramsey suffered more consequences than most. “It cost him, but the city today is better because of his convictions. We have lost a great and good man,” Vieron said.

The Ramseys left Memphis again in 1969 and joined the American Baptist Church. Ramsey briefly served congregations in St. Louis and Dallas.

He left St. Louis when the congregation rejected a proposal to open a free clinic in the church. He was fired in Dallas after he spoke at a protest of the 1972 Christmas bombing of North Vietnam.

Ramsey was born in Memphis in 1922. He attended Central High School and graduated from Millington High School.

He was an outstanding athlete.

He won the Civitan Club golf tournament in the 1960s by one stroke by sinking a 60-foot putt on the 18th green. He also was offered a contract to pitch for the St. Louis Cardinals’ organization, but he turned it down.

”He said he didn’t think his arm would hold up,” said his son, Bob Ramsey, who lives in St. Louis. “But Dad was such a devout Baptist, he also didn’t believe he should play ball on Sundays.”

Ramsey went to what is now the University of Memphis, then Union University in Jackson, Tennessee. Students who were studying to become ministers were assigned part-time pulpits in nearby small churches.

That’s where Ramsey met Rebecca Jackson, who was born in Rutherford, Tennessee, in 1926. She was her class valedictorian and the first person in her family to attend college.

Rev. Eyleen Farmer, a former minister at Calvary Episcopal Church, was a member of Second Baptist when Ramsey was pastor. She and her husband, Rev. Tom Momberg, visited the Ramseys in October.

”He talked a lot about Rebecca – falling madly in love the first time he saw ‘that pretty girl in a sky blue dress’ when he was preaching a revival,” Farmer said.

”They were married on a Christmas Eve. Last summer, when he learned of his cancer diagnosis, he ‘bargained with God’ to live until this past Christmas Eve to celebrate their 75th anniversary. He talked about their life together as a ‘great love story’ and attributed their good marriage to Rebecca’s capacity to forgive.”

After graduating from Union University, Ramsey went to graduate school at Baylor University to study history and literature. He loved to memorize and recite poetry.

He earned a Master of Divinity degree from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and a Doctorate of Ministry from Eden Theological Seminary.

”I learned that God was bigger than I’d ever dreamed of,” Ramsey told The Commercial Appeal in 2011. “I was used to a narrow God who was exclusive, but I began to learn that I can’t limit God, that Christianity is unique but not exclusive.”

The Ramseys returned to Memphis again in 1973. Ramsey opened the Pastoral Counseling Center. He also was a Clinical Member of the American Association of Marriage and Family Therapists.

”I’m glad he was able to find a ministry that was more compatible with his heart,” said Tim Ramsey. “He believed that right relations with God can emerge only in connection with right relations with other people.”

Over the next nearly four decades, Ramsey, the great-great-grandson of a Cumberland Presbyterian minister, served on the staffs at Prescott Baptist, Idlewild Presbyterian, Calvary Episcopal, First Congregational and First Unitarian churches in Memphis.

Ramsey studied violin as a child, he took it up again later in life and was a member of the Germantown Symphony Orchestra for 25 years.

”He was the truest Renaissance man I’ve ever met. He never stopped learning,” said the Rev. Dr. opens in a new windowSteve Montgomery, Idlewild’s senior pastor from 2000-2019. “His view of God continued to enlarge. He would always say, ‘The integrity of love is more important than the purity of dogma.’”

Every Thursday morning from 1998 to 2011, Ramsey taught a class at Idlewild on theology, psychology, literature, poetry, music, economics, baseball and whatever subject happened to be on his insatiable mind. The final class he taught was called “The Good Life.”

”I’m having a great life,” he said. “I’m doing what I love with the people I love. I’m still learning, still growing in my faith. I don’t have as many answers as I used to, but I’m finding the questions a lot more interesting.”

The Ramseys moved to Washington, D.C., in 2011 to live with their daughter, Martha Ramsey, the eldest of their four children. Their son, Philip Ramsey, lives in Asheville, North Carolina.

Brooks and Rebecca Ramsey were married for 75 years. In addition to their four children, they had five grandchildren, and four great-grandchildren. Their children are planning a memorial service in Memphis on a date to be determined.

”My parents were the kindest, most forgiving people I’ve ever known,” said Bob Ramsey. “I’ve never heard them raise their voice at each other.”

This story first appeared at dailymemphian.com under an exclusive use agreement with The Institute. Photos reprinted with permission of The Daily Memphian.

David Waters
Written By

David Waters is Distinguished Journalist in Residence and assistant director of the Institute for Public Service Reporting at the University of Memphis.

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