Rev. Dr. S. M. (Sylvester Marilyn) Wright, African-American Baptist pastor, political strategist, and Dallas religious leader, son of Rev. Calvin and Mary (Mikle) Wright, was born in Burleson County, Texas, on February 7, 1927. Wright spent his childhood in one of Dallas’s poorest neighborhoods, the Bon Ton community, and attended Lincoln High School. After graduation, Wright enrolled at Bishop College in Marshall, Texas, where he completed two years of study before leaving in 1946 for a one-year enlistment in the United States Army. He returned to Bishop College to complete his bachelor’s degree in 1949 and later received master’s and doctoral degrees in education from the institution as well.
Wright began his ministerial career in 1957, becoming the pastor of People’s Missionary Baptist Church, located at 3119 Pine Street in South Dallas. Presiding passionately over a flock of nearly 1,600 devoted members, he held the position for thirty-seven years until his death in 1994. Wright’s sphere of influence extended far beyond the confines of his own church, however, as he quickly became one of Dallas’s leading religious figures. For nearly thirty-five years, Wright’s church services were broadcast on KHVN-AM, enabling a much wider audience to hear the pastor’s message. Wright also served as president of the Interdenominational Ministers’ Alliance (IMA) of Metropolitan Dallas for more than thirty years, where he made notable strides in organizing black leadership throughout Dallas, as well as the state of Texas.
In addition to religious matters, Wright also addressed social and political issues as well, especially when circumstances were most dire. As urban race riots spread throughout America’s metropolitan centers in the mid-to-late 1960s, Wright was committed to keeping Dallas from joining the list of cities to experience a full-scale civil disturbance. Following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in April 1968, Wright and other IMA leaders hosted a special tribute service at the People’s Missionary Baptist Church. In addition to honoring the fallen civil rights leader, Wright and other speakers, such as Rev. C. A. W. Clark, reminded their audience repeatedly that Dr. King’s mantra was always one of non-violence and that destructive urban riots did not comport with his message of peace.
Wright remained steadfastly committed to preserving tranquility within Dallas’s black community, as well as building consensus in an effort to bridge Dallas’s racial divide. The Dallas Morning News praised Wright and the Interdenominational Ministers’ Alliance, saying, “Mr. Wright and the other members of the IMA have once again demonstrated the high caliber of constructive leadership that has benefited the entire Dallas community.” In addition to his work with the IMA, Wright was an active member in the South Dallas NAACP and played a vital role in helping to desegregate DISD schools during the 1970s.
Beyond his influence on Dallas politics and race relations, Wright was also a major figure at the state and national levels, rubbing elbows with the likes of Governor John Connally, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and President Lyndon B. Johnson. Wright even served as vice chairman of Rev. Billy Graham’s Crusade of the Southwest. Because of his ability to rally support, Wright’s opinion on religious and political endeavors became a highly-prized commodity for leaders of all political persuasions.
Following Wright’s death in 1994, U.S. Congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson delivered a special tribute speech to the House of Representatives, in which she emphasized this side of Wright’s legacy, saying, “In Dallas, and throughout the State of Texas, Dr. S. M. Wright was sought out for his leadership and council by political leaders and elected officials, both Democrats and Republicans. His support of their efforts was always critical. An endorsement by Dr. Wright was tantamount to success.”
Wright married Debra D. Williams on November 14, 1973. The couple had two sons, S. M. Wright, Jr., and Calvin Wright, who teamed up to fill their late father’s pastoral position at People’s Missionary Baptist Church following his death on November 3, 1994. Wright was sixty-seven years old when he lost his debilitating battle with cancer, although he had managed to win election as president of the National Missionary Baptist Convention of America, along with its 2.5 million members, only a few weeks prior to his death.
The outpouring of sentiment in the wake of his death reflected the tremendous amount of passion and concern Reverend Wright had put into all of his endeavors, whether they were religious, social, or political. Wright’s funeral, which was held at People’s Missionary Baptist Church, lasted well over five hours and was attended by more than 1,000 grieving mourners. The event was slated to have almost fifty speakers, but time constraints forced many to bow out before getting a chance to deliver their personal words of condolence and praise. In 1995 then Governor George W. Bush made Wright the first African American to have a Dallas freeway named in his honor, as the four-mile stretch of South Central Express from between IH-45 and Loop 12 became known as the S. M. Wright Freeway.
As congresswomen Johnson said, “Many doors that were previously closed to the black community were opened to Dr. Wright. He, in turn, opened those doors for the rest of us.” The S. M. Wright Foundation carries on the task of opening doors in Dallas, remaining committed to the goal of “empowering families and enhancing the quality of life in the Dallas community”