Phillips, Channing E.

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Channing E. Phillips

Minister, civil rights activist

Channing Emery Phillips was a noted clergyman and civil rights activist. Intellectually gifted and attuned to the needs of the urban poor, he was deeply committed to helping black and low-income families improve their circumstances. He attained national recognition at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1968, when he became the first black man to be nominated for president of the United States.

Descended from Native American, African American, and Caucasian people, Phillips was from a prominent upper-class black family whose family tree and achievements were profiled in the Negro History Bulletin. His father, Reverend Porter W. Phillips Sr., held an honorary doctorate of divinity degree and was the pastor of the Carrone Baptist Church in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, for twenty-five years. His mother, Dorothy Fletcher Phillips, was a schoolteacher, church organist, and choir director. The couple had five sons: Porter Jr., Channing, Treadwell, Wendell, and Fletcher, as well as one daughter, Marie.

Phillips was born in Brooklyn, New York on March 23, 1928. Like their father, Channing and his brothers earned their undergraduate degrees at the historically black Virginia Union University in Richmond, Virginia. All of the Phillips brothers were members of Alpha Kappa Alpha fraternity, and all but one was a minister or had been employed by a church.

Academic Career and Preparation for the Ministry

As a young man, the multi-talented Phillips had trouble deciding upon a career. He served in the United States Air Force from 1945 to 1947 and left with the rank of sergeant. He won a scholarship in painting and sculpture to attend the Carnegie Museum and Carnegie Institute of Technology. From there, he went to the University of Utah to study electrical engineering. Phillips ended up at his father's alma mater, Virginia Union University, where he majored in sociology and finished an A.B degree in 1950. He then went on to earn a B.D. from Colgate Divinity School in Rochester, New York, in 1953. Phillips advanced to Drew University Graduate School in New Jersey with a fellowship to study the New Testament from 1955 to 1957 as a doctoral candidate.

After he left Drew, Phillips was an instructor on the New Testament at Howard University in Washington, D.C. from 1956 to 1958; visiting lecturer in Greek at the Protestant Episcopal Seminary in Alexandria, Virginia in 1958; and visiting lecturer in New Testament at the American University in Washington, D.C. from 1957 to 1958, where he also held a interim minister position at the Plymouth Congregational Church. He met and married Jane Celeste Nabors in 1956. Eventually they became the parents of five children: Channing, Sheila, Tracy, Jill, and John.

During 1958, Phillips returned to New York City for an appointment as associate minister at Grace Congregational Church and later served as pastor at the Lemuel Haynes Congregational Church in Jamaica, Long Island, New York from 1959 to 1961. Phillips relocated to Washington, D.C. in 1961 when he accepted the senior pastor position at the historic Lincoln Memorial Congregational Temple United Church of Christ, where he remained until 1970.

Phillips reportedly left Lincoln Memorial when some church members complained about the amount of time and energy he was investing in critical social problems. The disaffected church members may have felt that Phillips was neglecting his ministerial duties to focus on his job as executive director for the Housing Development Corporation of Washington, D.C, a post he had retained since 1967. Phillips was also active in religious and fraternal organizations. In 1964, he held memberships in the National Association of Bible Instructors, the Society of Biblical Literature and Exegesis, Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity, and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

Phillips was against the Vietnam War, and he protested against it and participated in peace movement programs. He ardently supported the civil rights movement and marched with Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma, Alabama in 1964. A staunch Democrat, he worked as a committeeman from 1968 to 1972. His high profile activism brought him to the attention of Robert F Kennedy, who requested that Phillips chair his presidential campaign in the District of Columbia. Phillips proved the candidate's confidence in him by capturing all of the Democratic delegates for Kennedy.

Kennedy's presidential bid came to a tragic end when he was assassinated while campaigning in California in June of 1968. When the delegates who had pledged to support Kennedy assembled at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago to nominate a president and vice president, many were still in mourning. Kennedy, who had represented the liberal wing of the party, had put together a strong coalition of minorities, labor interests, anti-war protesters, and civil rights activists. These delegates were in no mood to ally with the remaining democratic presidential candidates, Eugene McCarthy and Hubert Humphrey.


Born in Brooklyn, New York on March 23
Serves in the United States Air Force; leaves with rank of sergeant
Graduates from Virginia Union with A.B. degree in sociology
Receives B.D. from Colgate Divinity School, Rochester, New York
Studies as doctoral fellow in New Testament Studies at Drew University
Marries Jane Celeste Nabors
Serves as pastor, Lemuel Hayes Congregational Church
Serves as pastor, Lincoln Memorial Congregational Temple United Church of Christ
Serves as executive director, Housing Development Corporation
First African American nominated for president by a major political party, Democratic National Convention in Chicago
Serves as Democratic committee member
Loses election to House of Representatives from Washington, D.C.
Resigns from Housing Development Corporation
Serves as minister of planning and coordination, Riverside Church, New York
Dies in New York City on November 13

The 1968 Democratic National Convention was an important watershed in black political history. It had the highest attendance of black delegates up until that time, 209, and these blacks, bolstered by gains made in the civil rights struggle, asserted themselves. They challenged the credentials of the regular party delegates from several southern states. Only the contesting of the Georgia delegation was successful. It divided its votes between a racially mixed liberal coalition and a regular (all white) delegation.

Nominated for President of the United States

In this racially charged atmosphere Channing E. Phillips was nominated as a favorite son candidate from the District of Columbia from the floor of the convention. He was nominated by Philip M. Stern, a white D.C. delegate who admired Phillips' courage and honesty. Phillips received sixty-seven and a half votes. Twenty-one votes came from the D.C. delegates and the remaining votes were cast by African American delegates in seventeen other states. Julian Bond, a twenty-eight-year-old Georgia state legislator, was nominated for vice president of the United States and received forty-eight and a half votes but declined because he was not at the constitutionally required age of thirty-five. Amid all of the highly publicized tumult, Hubert Humphrey emerged as the Democratic Party's candidate for president.

Phillips's nomination, although symbolic, brought him instant fame. In a New York Times interview that described him as a "new Negro leader," Phillips said he thought that the nomination of a black man for president was worthwhile and that it had been an experiment to see if black peoples' problems could be solved by working with major political parties. He expressed the hope that his nomination had laid the foundation for a black man to be considered as a serious candidate at a future convention.

In 1971, Phillips lost an election to Walter Fauntroy, a charismatic Baptist minister, as the District of Columbia's non-voting delegate to the House of Representatives. He resigned from his job at the Housing Development Corporation in 1974 with mixed success. The corporation built over 1,000 homes for low income families, who in turn sold them to middle-class buyers, thereby not relieving the city's low-income housing shortage. There was also a scandal associated with an apartment complex renovation that went bankrupt.

Phillips accepted a vice president for university relations position at his alma mater, Virginia Union University, and relocated to Richmond, Virginia in 1974. An apparent personality clash with the university's president, however, led to charges of non-performance, and he was terminated. Phillips denied the allegation, sued both the president and university, and settled out of court.

He returned to Washington, D.C. as director of Congressional Relations for the National Endowment for the Humanities. He donned a clerical collar in 1982 for the last time, when he moved to New York and became the minister of planning and coordination for the Riverside Church. He remained in that position until his health began to fail, first with a heart attack and then with cancer. He died of cancer, at the age of 59, on November 13, 1987 at the Columbia Presbyterian Hospital in New York City.

A brief 1982 Washington Post article posed the question: "Whatever Happened to Channing Phillips?" Reflecting on his political activism in the 1960s and 1970s, a plainly disenchanted Phillips told the reporter: "At the time I got involved, I thought I could make some social change, but in fact politics is designed to maintain the status quo."

After Phillips left his job as a Democratic committee member in 1972, he left the political stage and his opportunity to parlay his triumph as a "Negro First" into some more lucrative or high profile endeavors. Both Channing Philips and Julian Bond were sons of well-known fathers in the black community and came from upper middle-class families that could be considered black aristocracy. Coming from a somewhat privileged family, with strong academic credentials, the handsome and eloquent Channing Phillips was blessed with having spent time in the national limelight. Yet, unlike Julian Bond, who used his unsuccessful nomination as a springboard for speaking engagements that brought wider national recognition, accompanied by financial benefits and more political clout that in turn solidified his status a black leader, Phillips appeared to not want to take the time or have the temperament to pursue exploiting his presidential nomination for greater fame and fortune. This left some observers with the impression that he had squandered an opportunity.

Phillips left some of his jobs under a cloud of controversy and while his supporters admired his intellect and ability to argue his point, he was criticized for being distant and hard to get along with. He appears to have had an understanding and genuine sympathy for the suffering of the urban poor and dedicated his life to serving others, but perhaps he did not possess the patience or people skills to funnel that understanding and sympathy into accomplishments that might significantly improve their lot or his own.



"Phillips, Channing E." In Who's Who Among Black Americans. 3rd ed. Northbrook, Ill.: Who's Who Among Black Americans Publishing Company, 1981.


Apple, R.W., Jr. "Dr. King Aide Takes Lead in Capital." New York Times, 13 January 1971.

Barnes, Bart. "The Rev. Channing Phillips, Civic Activist, Politician, Dies." Washington Post, 12 November 1987.

Barnes, Clive. "Negro in Presidential Ballot Foresees Rise of New Breed of Leaders." New York Times, 30 August 1968.

"Channing Phillips Dies in New York." Richmond Times-Dispatch, 12 November 1987.

"Channing Phillips: Nominated for President at '68 Convention." Los Angeles Times, 13 November 1987.

"Channing Phillips Settles Suit with College that Fired Him." Washington Post, 21 January 1977.

"The Family of Porter William Phillips, Sr." Negro History Bulletin 27 (January 1964): 81-84.

Harris, Janette Hosten. "Political History." Negro History Bulletin 31 (November 1968): 8.

Walton, Hanes, Jr., and Gray, C. Vernon. "Black Politics at National Republican and Democratic Conventions 1868–1972." Phylon 36 (Third Quarter 1975): 276.

"Whatever Happened to Channing Phillips?" Washington Post, 4 February 1982.

Whitaker, Joseph D. "College Fires D.C. Civic Figure." Washington Post, 12 September 1975.

                                    Glenda M. Alvin

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Phillips, Channing E.

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