A. Knighton Stanley was a civil rights leader who helped bring Jesse Jackson to prominence as an activist in the 1960s. (1990 photo by John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

A. Knighton Stanley, a civil rights leader who helped bring Jesse Jackson to prominence as an activist in the 1960s and who became a political force in Washington as pastor of Peoples Congregational United Church of Christ for nearly 40 years, died Sept. 21 at a hospital in Atlanta. He was 76.

The cause was a heart attack, said his daughter Kathryn V. Stanley.

The son of a congregationalist minister, Rev. Stanley graduated from Yale Divinity School in 1962 and then returned with urgency to his home town of Greensboro, N.C., amid growing tensions over civil rights protests. “Here I am in the nice beautiful North, and my people are fighting this revolution,” Rev. Stanley later recalled.

The city had drawn national attention in 1960 when students at the city’s historically black colleges led sit-ins at Woolworth’s because they had been denied service on the basis of their race. But when the community did nothing more to integrate many of its theaters, emporiums and other public accommodations, the pickets and protests continued afresh.

“Demonstrations in Greensboro were larger than anywhere else in country except Birmingham, Ala.,” said Duke University history professor William H. Chafe, who wrote the book “Civilities and Civil Rights” about the Greensboro protests. “There were 1,400 people in jail in the spring of 1963.”

Rev. Stanley charged into this environment, serving as a respected adviser to the students who really drove the civil rights movement in the city and proving instrumental in bringing the black establishment behind the demonstrations. “There was a generation gap, and if you could show that people like Rev. Stanley were behind the effort, reinforcing it, it meant you had a lot of other people, members of the establishment, willing to be supportive,” Chafe said.

Rev. Stanley worked at Greensboro’s black schools, North Carolina A&T State University and the women’s Bennett College. He also became a local official with the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), a civil rights group, and sat on Greensboro’s human rights commission.

By his own description, Rev. Stanley was not a fiery orator and “hated to argue with anybody.” His role was more intellectual: calculating when activists would proceed with utmost caution and when they would risk mass arrests with the intent of flooding the city’s jails. Such a dramatic gesture, he said, would “break the back of the whole damn thing.”

Rev. Stanley knew that the civil rights efforts in Greensboro lacked someone to galvanize the struggle in a consistent way, and he helped identify the charismatic potential of Jesse Jackson, then a popular campus athlete and student body president at North Carolina A&T. In later years, he would become a minister, civil rights leader and presidential candidate.

“We needed Jesse as a football player the girls loved,” Rev. Stanley told Chafe. “We woke him up one day and he has been protesting ever since.”

In an interview Wednesday, Jackson called Rev. Stanley his “closest teacher” before he became involved in civil rights marches led by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. “He was young enough for us to relate to but old enough to set parameters for us,” Jackson said. “He had the capacity to interpret our struggle bigger than just the daily march.”

Jackson said that white government officials threatened the school with budget cuts and loss of accreditation if the university president did not more forcefully prohibit student protests. When state legislators targeted the school, Jackson said, Rev. Stanley helped persuade the students not to back down.

“At the crossroads, you must take the right choice and must be willing to make sacrifice,” Jackson recalled Rev. Stanley advising. “He was saying, ‘What good is a degree without dignity?’ ”

Jackson said he was inclined to pursue a career in law before Rev. Stanley steered him toward his religious vocation.

“I had a limited definition of the ministry,” said Jackson. “He saw it as a call to do service, to do justice to exalt people. He said the ministry is much broader than the law, said it’s Gen­esis and Revelation and beyond — the sum total of life.”

The Greensboro lunch-counter sit-ins were credited with sparking similar protests throughout the South and ushering in a new generation of civil rights leaders, including Jackson, Julian Bond and John Lewis. Three years after the first Woolworth’s sit-in, the Greensboro mayor issued a call for mass desegregation. The next year, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawed segregation in public places.

Alfred Knighton Stanley, known as “Tony,” was born in Dudley, N.C., on July 15, 1937, and raised in Greensboro. He was a 1959 graduate of Talladega College in Alabama and received a doctorate in ministry from Howard University in 1974.

In 1966, he left Greensboro for a ministerial job in Detroit. Two years later, he arrived in Washington and became senior minister at Peoples Congregational, a historic church whose late minister, Arthur F. Elmes, helped lead the push to integrate Washington restaurants in the 1950s.

The church, on 13th and Crittenden streets Northwest in the city’s Petworth neighborhood, was a favorite of Howard University educators, doctors, lawyers and journalists. During Rev. Stanley’s tenure, membership increased to about 2,000 from 650 when he took over.

Carrying on the social justice ministry of Elmes, he started a food pantry program and social action group focused on international human rights concerns and began collecting scholarship money for college-bound District students.

For a decade, Rev. Stanley oversaw the redesign and construction of a $5.2 million church sanctuary that was completed in 1991. Describing the house of worship, which was conceived to evoke the African American religious experience, Rev. Stanley called it “an African hut in cathedral proportions.” It has stained-glass windows — one depicting a black female Jesus, a slave ship and a family — donated by Bill Cosby’s wife, Camille.

Rev. Stanley’s marriages to Beatrice Perry and Andrea Young — the daughter of Atlanta mayor, congressman and U.N. ambassador Andrew Young — ended in divorce. Survivors include two children from his first marriage, Nathaniel T. Stanley of Washington and Kathryn V. Stanley of East Point, Ga.; a daughter from his second marriage, Taylor M. Stanley of Washington; and a sister.

Rev. Stanley sponsored dozens of Ethio­pian students and helped raise one of them, Yeme Mengistu-Gunn of Washington, through much of her adolescence.

Rev. Stanley, who often marched against gun and gang violence, was ensconced in the political and business life of the city.

He was special assistant to Mayor Walter E. Washington in the 1970s and an advisory board member of the Industrial Bank of Washington, one of the country’s largest black-owned banks. He also was a trustee of the University of the District of Columbia and served on the judiciary nominating committees that helped elevate black judges on the D.C. courts.

Washington tapped Rev. Stanley in 1975 to lead the office overseeing the city’s bicentennial efforts. He was the fourth person in as many years to take over the job. Previous bicentennial czars faulted the mayor and private business leaders for failing to provide the financial and community support necessary to essentially remake many of the city’s neighborhoods — including many torn apart by riots in 1968 — into a glossy showcase.

The bicentennial plan came perilously close to falling into chaos, and Rev. Stanley scaled back many of the more grandiose projects.

Mostly, he told The Washington Post, he focused on “an intangible kind of thing, a lifting up of the diversity and ethnicity of the Washington area.” He said his biggest hurdle was justifying the Bicentennial “to a city whose residents are largely black. . . . There were a lot of reservations — with justification — that the flag waving and the hoopla were just for the tourists, and there were questions concerning what do we have to celebrate.”

The city hosted musical concerts and education activities, but Rev. Stanley said he was proudest of 50 “curb projects,” neighborhoods cleanup efforts and mini-parks that sprang up in abandoned lots.

In a city where church leaders often have the clout of ward bosses, Rev. Stanley frequently made clear who he intended to support for city offices. He privately counseled then-Mayor Marion Barry after the politician’s series of arrests on drug charges in the late 1980s and was one of the few black ministers who spoke openly and with great disappointment about the mayor’s behavior and its effect on the city’s reputation.

“Our only power,” Rev. Stanley said of his preaching, “is to give the city a sense of moral meaning and when you lose touch with that which makes you powerful, it’s like pulling the cord.”