William Astor Kirk, African-American educator, author, and civil rights leader, son of Alex and Exella (Loudd) Kirk, was born on October 5, 1922, in Harleton, Texas. After graduating from Center Point High School in Pittsburg, Texas, in 1940, Kirk began study at Wiley College in Marshall, Texas. In 1942 he transferred to Howard University in Washington, D. C. While studying for both his B.A. and M.A. in political science, he worked at the segregated YMCA and as a switchboard operator for the university. Through his job as a switchboard operator Kirk met his future spouse, Vivian Tramble. In 1946 he married Tramble. They later had two children. Kirk was awarded his B.A. degree in 1946 and by June 1947 had earned his M.A. degree.
Kirk’s return to Texas marked the beginning of a long academic and civil rights career. He started out as an assistant professor of government with Samuel Huston College, a coeducational school for blacks founded in Austin in 1898 and supported by the Methodist Church. Kirk became an organizer with the Austin chapter of the NAACP, whose president, James H. Morton, had served as a biology professor at Wiley College. Through the arrangement of peaceful protests, Kirk was able to desegregate the Austin Public Library. The Austin branch of the NAACP also aggressively challenged segregation of educational facilities and opportunities offered Texas’s black citizens. In an attempt to push open the doors of graduate and professional schools, the NAACP supported Heman Sweatt in his legal case against the president of the University of Texas, Theophilus S. Painter, for acceptance into the University’s law school.
As this case was going through the court system, Kirk also challenged the segregation policy by applying for graduate school in December 1947. He wanted to receive his doctorate in political science. By this time the Texas legislature had attempted to comply with “separate but equal” for graduate studies through the hasty formation of the Texas State University for Negroes (TSUN). An opening for Kirk was provided, but as the school lacked both the library and faculty for his program, Kirk declined. In 1948 he applied again and was admitted to TSUN. His courses, however, were to be separate from the campus in Austin. This was unacceptable to Kirk. By the fall of 1949, Kirk was assigned classes taught by professors from the University of Texas, but these classes were to be held at the YMCA. After his first class, he found the situation unacceptable and demanded his $26 in tuition refunded. In the spring semester 1950 the University of Texas allowed Kirk to take his classes on campus, provided he sat at the back of the classroom with a metal ring placed around his desk. These measures were taken so that Kirk’s “blackness wouldn’t rub off on the white students.” Kirk refused, threatened to sue, and persisted in demanding equal treatment—an equity the university was forced to acquiesce to by the June 5, 1950, United States Supreme Court’s decision in Sweatt v. Painter. Basing their decision on the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, the court found that segregated education at the graduate level could never meet standards of equality. Kirk was quick to take advantage of the fact that graduate schools were legally desegregated.
In the fall of 1950 Kirk joined Sweatt and four other black students and began graduate studies at the University of Texas. While there Kirk continued to be a man of accomplishments. During the summer of 1951 he served as a guest lecturer at Bishop College in Marshall. From 1952 to 1953 he attended the London School of Economics and Political Science as a Fulbright scholar. By the summer of 1958 he had been promoted to a full professorship and served as chairman of his department at Huston-Tillotson College. In the fall semester of 1958, Kirk became the first African American to receive a doctorate in political science from the University of Texas. He retired from Huston-Tillotson in 1961.
In 1960 Kirk, who had remained very active in the Methodist Church, was elected secretary of a group known as the “Committee of Five.” The purpose of this organization was to end racial segregation within the Methodist Church—a segregation codified by the denomination in a 1939 Central Jurisdiction body to segregate African Americans within the church. Active in pursuit of integration, Kirk was chosen as an alternate delegate to represent the church body at the 1964 General Conference of the Methodist Church. At this national meeting, the Church Union Commission voted to maintain its policy of segregation. Kirk was aghast. In his own words he found himself “completely dumbfounded. My emotions ranged from deep anger to almost uncontrollable outrage to profound sorrow.” Kirk responded by passionately and eloquently arguing against this decision. Hours of debate ensued, and finally “The Kirk Amendment” was passed. This amendment established a denominational “commitment to end institutional segregation” within the church. When Southern church leaders challenged this at the 1965 judicial council claiming local autonomy, Kirk argued that the denomination did have the authority to end segregation. His arguments were so effective that the council’s 1965 Judicial Decision No. 232 canonized “the creation of a racially inclusive church.”
By 1968 Kirk was called to serve a national purpose. President Lyndon B. Johnson needed Kirk to serve as a deputy regional director of the Southwest Region for the United States Office of Economic Opportunity in Austin. When first approached with the offer by aide Bill Moyers, Kirk declined the position. This rejection was unacceptable to President Johnson who “summoned” Kirk to the LBJ Ranch and proceeded to explain to Kirk how he needed African Americans, and specifically Kirk, in such prominent positions. Kirk accepted the job. He served at this position in Austin at the end of the 1960s and was promoted to Washington, D.C., where he served under the Nixon, Ford, Carter, and Reagan administrations. He and his wife made their home in Suitland, Maryland.
After retiring from civil service, Kirk remained dynamic. He founded and was CEO of an organizational firm named the Organization Management Services Corporation, based out of Suitland, Maryland. During his long career in education, he had also served as an adjunct professor at the University of Maryland and had held teaching positions at Rutgers as well as the Boston University School of Theology.
Beginning in 1984, Kirk became a very active member of his church, the Foundry United Methodist Church located in Washington, D.C. He authored four books, Nonprofit Organization Governance (1986), Desegregation of the Methodist Church Polity: Reform Movements that Ended Racial Segregation (2005), Board Members: Governing Roles & Responsibilities (2007), and One Life: Three Professional Careers—My Civil Rights Story (2008). He reflected in a United Methodist News Service commentary his drive for civil rights was a drive for equality: “I wanted to be viewed, liked or disliked, and praised or criticized on my merits as a professional who incidentally happened to be black or African American.”
Perhaps due to his reflections in writing for attaining civil rights, Kirk remained an activist for ending discrimination within the church. The victims for whose rights he fought included African Americans, women, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered members within the Methodist Church. Though saddened by his wife’s death on March 31, 2010, he continued his advocacy; two books addressing this topic were released in 2010—The Politics of Ending Church Discrimination and Ending Institutional Discrimination within United Methodism. His book Ending Institutional Discrimination won a “Finalist” award at the 2011 Next Generation Indie Book competition. He was invited to speak and to lead a workshop titled “Ending Discrimination in the UMC: How Can the Past Inform the Future?” at the 2012 General Conference of the United Methodist Church. However, on August 12, 2011, at Washington Hospital Center in Washington, D.C., Kirk died. The fact that his obituary appeared in papers geographically ranging from the Austin American-Statesman to the Washington Post and as diverse as the Washington Blade (a gay news source) to the United Methodist Churches official online ministry testified to his inclusive civil rights legacy.