Nathan Wright Jr., 81, an Episcopal minister and scholar who was a leading voice in the debate over black power in the 1960s, died of diabetes Feb. 22 at his home in East Stroudsburg, Pa.
Known for his erudition and sophistication, Mr. Wright wrote 18 books, many of them dealing with race in America. He also wrote poetry, a book of sermons and a volume on Christian philosophy.
He was a columnist for the Star-Ledger newspaper in Newark, N.J., and his writing was syndicated in newspapers across the country. As a young man, he was a participant in the "Journey of Reconciliation," an early effort to test the implementation of a U.S. Supreme Court decision integrating interstate bus travel.
In the 1960s, leaders of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee -- including Stokely Carmichael and later H. Rap Brown -- came to believe that any progress for blacks in the United States could come only through independent black political power separate from that of whites. That belief led to divisions within the civil rights movement, as such groups as the NAACP, the National Urban League and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s Southern Christian Leadership Conference opposed such separatism.
Mr. Wright, serving in the Episcopal Archdiocese of Newark's department of urban work, supported black power, but he was seen as a moderating public voice.
His most influential role came as chairman of the 1967 National Conference on Black Power in Newark. The gathering, attended by more than 1,000 delegates representing 286 organizations, symbolized a major shift in black intellectual life.
At the start of the conference, Mr. Wright told a New York Times reporter that his notion of black power depended "on the capacity of black people to be and to become themselves, not only for their own good, but for the enrichment of the lives of all."
He also noted that whites, no matter how noble their intentions, could not solve the problems of blacks.
"People who are members of a majority group, however sympathetic they may be with those who are oppressed, can never fully identify themselves with the oppressed," he said.
Mr. Wright was born in Shreveport, La., and grew up in Cincinnati. His father sold insurance and actively participated in the civil rights movement as head of Cincinnati's branch of the NAACP. Mr. Wright's mother was a teacher.
He served in the Army as a medical administrative corps officer during World War II. He continued his college education after the war, graduating from the University of Cincinnati in 1947 and receiving a doctorate in divinity at Episcopal Theology School in Cambridge, Mass. He was ordained a minister of the Episcopal Church in 1950. He also received a doctorate in education from Harvard University.
Mr. Wright joined 16 other people in testing the 1946 Supreme Court decision that outlawed segregation on interstate travel. He and the others traveled in racially mixed groups from Washington into the South aboard buses.
That effort, under the auspices of the Congress of Racial Equality and the Fellowship of Reconciliation, a religious peace organization, is believed by many to be America's first freedom ride, a strategy that proved more successful years later.
After the Newark conference, Mr. Wright had an influential career in academia. He was founding chairman of the department of African and Afro-American studies at the State University of New York at Albany and lectured widely across the country.
Mr. Wright, a lifelong Republican, served on presidential task forces during the Nixon and Reagan administrations.
He also was a close friend of Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan's, and officiated at his wedding.
Survivors include his wife, Pauline Wright; five children; a brother and a sister; eight grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren.