For decades, Marvin Griffin was a beacon in Austin - a leader who worked to empower the east side and improve education across the city.|
Griffin, the first black president of the Austin school board and a pastor for 42 years at the landmark Ebenezer Baptist Church, was a community leader known for his inner calm while pushing for equality in education and beyond. He died Wednesday afternoon. He was 90.
"He was an elder statesman. He brought a certain kind of class and wisdom to this community," said Nelson Linder, president of the Austin chapter of the NAACP, who described himself as a student of Griffin's. "He was definitely a pioneer in terms of education in this city, but also community involvement. I think he was a shining light in the effort to show people that East Austin should be embraced."
Griffin served on the Austin school board in the 1970s as it worked to integrate Austin schools. Under his leadership, the Ebenezer Baptist Church founded the East Austin Economic Development Corp., which has helped East Austin residents with a variety of needs, from affordable housing to care for the elderly.
A dedicated family man despite his work at the church and in politics, Griffin always made time for his three daughters, including Gaynelle Griffin Jones, who was appointed by President Bill Clinton in 1993 as the first black woman to be U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Texas. Griffin Jones, also the first black woman to serve on the First Court of Appeals in Texas, died in March.
"He was a builder – not only of physical projects, but a mentor to people and a bridge builder, racially," said Marva Griffin Carter, one of Griffin's two surviving daughters. "He was a race man, in the sense that he fought for equal rights and helped to bring about many of the changes."
Griffin was an education advocate and a lifelong learner who earned his fifth and final college degree – a doctorate – at 67 and who was rarely seen without a book in hand, Carter said. He wrote one book and edited another. He traveled the world and served on the World Council of Churches, as well as other international faith organizations.
In Austin, Griffin was a political activist who worked to desegregate Austin. He would interview candidates for office to find the most liberal-minded and would put together a prospective ticket for the community, said Carter, who helped pass out the sheets.
He also sought to unify churches, inviting white pastors to his congregation and delivering sermons in white churches during a time when "segregation was very much actively the case at the 11 o'clock hour," Carter said.
Griffin's influence extended beyond Austin. Gov. John B. Connally appointed him to the Texas Southern University board of regents. Griffin served as a delegate to the turbulent 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Though he was a Democrat, he would also donate to the Republican Party, Carter said.
"He could always see both sides of a coin, even though he might be on one side more firmly than the other," she said. "He had the kind of personality that was very much valued for what could have been hot situations. He had a very cool head, and could soften a volatile situation."
Griffin was a mentor to many state leaders, including Carole Keeton in her time as Texas Comptroller.
"He really, really was and always will be a true modern day Texas hero, a true Texas icon," said Keeton, who served on the school board with Griffin and described him as a life-long friend.
Griffin became the first black president of the Austin school board in 1978, and those who served with him say he was a benevolent leader for the board during a tumultuous time when it was working to integrate schools.
"Marvin was a role model for everyone," Keeton said. "He demonstrated – by the way he spoke, the way he acted, the way he lived his life – his inner belief that you've got to lift up all of God's children."
Griffin was soft-spoken and always remained calm at board meetings, even as they extended into the early morning hours, she said.
"He was the only one who could sit there in these long meetings with a pastoral pose," Keeton said.
At church, Griffin would begin his sermons in the same, calm way. He would begin with a text, then give an introduction, usually followed by three major points.
Then he would reach what Carter described as "a climactic expressive moment."
Keeton, who visited the church many times, said it was only during his sermons that she saw Griffin without his "inner calm."
"When he came down off that pulpit, into the aisle, we all thought we were hearing the voice of God, to tell you the truth," Keeton said.
He worked as a minister late into his life, retiring in 2011 at the age of 88.
"My father would get up at 5 a.m. and go into his study and he would work tirelessly," said Ria Griffin, another of Griffin's daughters.
During his time at Ebenezer, Griffin successfully guided the church's economic development board in acquiring a grant to build a new facility for the Ebenezer Child Development Center, which has the capacity for 200 children and also houses the Family Life Center, which is used for banquets and other Church activities.
The church also housed the first Meals on Wheels program in East Austin, partnered with Austin Energy in an energy conservation project to use solar energy, restored the historical Bailetti house to be utilized for community service projects, and facilitated the construction of the 12-unit Ebenezer Senior Housing complex. Griffin expanded Ebenezer's outreach ministry through radio and TV broadcasting and established the Tape Ministry for members incapable of attending services.
Griffin's wife, Lois King Griffin, who was also active in the church, died in 2006.
"There will be a wonderful family reunion in Heaven," Ria Griffin said.
Services will be held Jan. 4 at 11 a.m. at the Ebenezer Baptist Church at 1010 E. 10th Street. A wake will be held the night before, beginning at 6 p.m.
In lieu of flowers, the family asks donations be made to the Ebenezer Baptist building firm or the child development center.
Published in Austin American-Statesman on Dec. 28, 2013