For Timothy Wright ’77, public service means speaking up and reaching out

CMC was a natural fit for Timothy Wright ’77, who was both a student government leader and football standout at Compton High School. Wright also planned to use CMC to continue a passion for service inspired by the community involvement of his parents.


Commencement 2019

Claremont McKenna College will host its 72nd commencement ceremony at 2 p.m., Saturday, on Pritzlaff Field. Arthur Brooks is the featured speaker and will receive an honorary degree of Doctor of Laws. Timothy Wright ’77 will deliver the invocation and receive the Distinguished Public Service Award. Bruno Youn ’19 is the student speaker.

An active voice for “movements of justice” at CMC, Wright was a frequent visitor to the office of then-President Jack Stark ’57. In those years of the Vietnam War and its aftermath, tensions could flare on campus. Wright was suspended after he helped organize a student sit-in. Alumni had objected to the 5C’s hiring of Angela Davis as a visiting faculty member (a public adversary of then-California Governor Ronald Reagan, Davis had recently been fired by UCLA for her ties to the Communist Party); Wright and other students stood behind her. It was a major tipping point—and his comfort with speaking up about campus culture to Stark would prove crucial to his future. Wright appealed and Stark reinstated him for his senior year.

“It wasn’t just for black students. It was trying to get people on campus to understand a different perspective through reasoned arguments,” Wright said. “It was always peaceful. I saw it as a real mission.”

Wright pursued a career in public service, as a lawyer and an adviser to both Democratic and Republican elected officials. An alumni trustee of the College, he will receive the Distinguished Public Service Award at CMC’s 72nd commencement on Saturday.

Wright said the ethic of service that guided him at CMC and beyond began during his Compton childhood. His mother, Mable, participated in PTA meetings and turned the Wright household into a polling site during elections. His dad, Timothy Jr., was a “tough cat” and Army veteran who served as father to everyone in the neighborhood. Having a big heart mattered.

Wright, a member of the Compton High School Hall of Fame, was a starting fullback and defensive end for the Stags. He studied economics and political science at CMC, and was also chairman of the five-college Black Students Union.

After Claremont, Wright completed his law degree at UCLA, where he was the first African American Chief Justice of the Moot Court Honors Program and the law school’s commencement speaker. His public service career took several unexpected turns, many in the political arena. He served as special counsel and director of intergovernmental affairs and commissioner of the department of economic development for Chicago Mayor Harold Washington, was active in the anti-Apartheid movement and participated in the constitutional negotiations in South Africa that led to the release from prison of Nelson Mandela, and was a domestic policy adviser for Bill Clinton’s 1992 Presidential campaign. Wright has also served on advisory boards in the administrations of George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush, and was a mentor to Barack Obama during his formative years in Chicago.

Recently, Wright has focused his efforts on urban economic development through churches—37 nationally and seven in Chicago, where he lives. He holds a Master of Divinity degree from the Chicago Theological Seminary and is pursuing a doctorate in ministry from McCormick Theological Seminary.

“Finding out what’s really inside, to me, that’s the beginning of public service,” said Wright, who will also deliver the invocation at CMC commencement. “I’ve had people judge me based on the color of my skin without ever getting to know who I am. No, when you see people as people and really reach in there, you’ll find God. That’s how we come together and solve problems.”

—Thomas Rozwadowski