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Empowering Community Through Social Action
The Rev. Sheridan Todd Yeary, PhD, MDiv | University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law
Influential civil rights attorney Charles Hamilton Houston, who worked to dismantle the Jim Crow laws and mentored future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, once said that a lawyer is “either a social engineer or a parasite on society.”
The Rev. Sheridan Todd Yeary, PhD, MDiv, a third-year evening student at the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law, wants to be the engineer.
Yeary is the senior pastor of Baltimore’s Douglas Memorial Community Church and an adjunct professor in the College of Public Affairs at the University of Baltimore. He’s a third-generation pastor who has devoted the last 17 years of his life to serving the faith community and advocating for civil rights.
As a child, Yeary would have told you he wanted to be a lawyer when he grew up. Now in his 50s, with both a master’s and doctoral degree under his belt, he’s making it happen.
“When people don’t have a real advocate who understands the dynamics or the rules of the game, they find themselves at a tremendous disadvantage,” Yeary says. “Law is not about right and wrong. It’s about rules.”
But Yeary cares greatly about right and wrong. At his core, he is a pastor, and always will be. Even his wife, Rhonda S. Boozer-Yeary, is an ordained minister.
With his law degree, he hopes to balance these two interests — what’s morally right and what law allows — to become the strongest possible advocate for his community of West Baltimore. His mission is to make sure public officials don’t “run the train off the rails,” leaving folks who live at the margins unrecognized, unacknowledged, or unrepresented.
It’s one of the reasons Yeary came to Maryland Carey Law: the school’s focus on both theory and practice, applying these to actual human rights concerns at the policy and advocacy level. He wanted to be in a place where he could partner with and learn from some of the most relevant black legal professionals in history — such as Larry S. Gibson, LLB, professor of law.
Yeary was born in the Deep South in Augusta, Ga., in 1966, in the segregated wing of University Hospital. His birth certificate established his race as “colored,” while civil rights leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Julian Bond continued a nationwide crusade for racial, political, and social justice.
Even before King became a famous minister and activist, Yeary says that black ministers, such as his grandfather, had always toed the line between faith and law, especially in black communities. They served the spiritual, existential, and social needs of their congregations, helping them to make sense of their complicated lives and society’s influence, while tapping into their resilience to inspire hope.
As a child, Yeary remembered his grandfather, the Rev. James Eli Yeary Sr., as a pastor, but he was also an educator who taught math in Tennessee. Back then the state was slow to implement Brown v. Board of Education. Separate public schools were no longer constitutional, but the residual effects of segregation were still present. Yeary’s grandfather became one of the first black principals in what had been an all-white high school. He served just one year though — his contract wasn’t renewed for a number of reasons, with discrimination at the top.
Yeary’s grandfather filed a lawsuit against the school district. The federal district court ordered his grandfather’s reinstatement, calling out the obvious discrimination he endured. Yeary keeps a copy of the court decision, Yeary v. Clarksville-Montgomery County Bd. of Education, et. al., a familial reminder of the anchor that grounds him in feeling he’s in the right place at the right time.
“My grandfather had to fight for his place in a society that didn’t want to give him a fair shake,” Yeary says. “I carry with me a generational obligation to continue to fight now because I never know who may be looking back after I’m gone at how I moved the dial on fairness and justice.”
Today, Yeary continues to turn that dial through his commitment to political and social action.
After the 2015 death of Freddie Gray in the custody of the Baltimore Police Department, the city erupted in a wave of violence, crime, and arson. In response, Yeary participated in what he called a “ministry of presence” where he and other religious leaders served as a buffer between police and protesters while sections of Baltimore burned.
The evening of Gray’s funeral, Yeary and his clergy colleaguesknelt and prayed in the street, placing their bodies between police in riot gear and demonstrators. It was a powerful, collective response to the pain of communities like Yeary’s, where the laws and policies often aren’t aligned with the people with which they serve.
This is just one example of Yeary’s decades-long commitment. He contributed to open and honest dialogue about the need for more opportunity — education and economic — in the black community. He advocated for economic inclusion in disadvantaged communities, marriage equality, bail reform, and legislation that would remove barriers for employment of former inmates. He called for peace and purpose after violence and violation.
He serves on the national board of the National Action Network and is a past political action co-chair for the Maryland State Conference NAACP. He is a founding principal and policy director of the Strategic Advocacy and Legislative Thinktank (SALT), a faith-based public policy collaborative that develops regional and national empowerment strategies for under-resourced communities and communities of color.
He has pursued, persisted, and propelled social justice in a way that harkens back to the civil rights movement he was born into. And he’s not stopping anytime soon, considering the current political climate. At a time when demonstrators demand that black lives matter, white supremacists ready for violence over the removal of a Civil War statue, and the president of the United States heads a controversial border crossing initiative, Yeary feels his actions are more needed than ever.
He’s seen where social and political regression like this goes — he knows the history, and he knows it tends to repeat itself, but only if allowed. Yeary plans to continue his current ministry and activism in the face of these challenges, now with another tool in his toolbox — a law degree, when he graduates in 2019.
“I have the opportunity to fight for issues that may not directly impact me now,” Yeary says, “but they’re important for so many other people. I’m called to be a social engineer, not a social parasite.”