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W.Va. civil-rights leaders plan to step down when terms end

July 06, 2007|By DAVE McMILLION

CHARLES TOWN, W.VA. - Jefferson County residents Jim Tolbert and George Rutherford, who between them have more than 50 years of experience fighting for civil rights in the county and across the state, have decided to step down from their posts.

Tolbert, who has been president of the state chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People since 1986, said he will step down from his job when his term ends Aug. 12.

Rutherford, who has been president of the Jefferson County chapter of the NAACP since 1974 except for one two-year term, said he will step down when his term ends in December 2008.

Tolbert and Rutherford often worked together on local issues, showing up at government meetings to raise concerns. They also grew up together in the county and attended segregated schools together.

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"It's been a long journey," Rutherford, 71, of Ranson, W.Va., said Thursday.

Over the years, Tolbert, who said he is in his mid-70s, and Rutherford were not shy about speaking their minds about discrimination issues, and they didn't veer from the course Thursday.

Despite the strife in the civil rights movement in the late 1950s and early 1960s, Tolbert and Rutherford said fighting for civil rights is more complicated now.

"I think that those were only the beginning," Tolbert said of the early days of the civil rights movement. "Those were the easy things to get off the table. Now, there is a lot of discrimination that is covert."

At the national level, the cost of wars has dried up money for civil rights efforts, and state officials have been slow to address issues facing blacks, Tolbert and Rutherford said.

Tolbert, who lives in Tuscawilla Hills outside of Charles Town, said there still are many racial issues in the state that need to be addressed, such as a wide achievement gap between black and white students, too few black teachers and not enough black administrators in state government.

Tolbert and Rutherford said they think Tolbert's long reign as state NAACP president can be attributed to the fact that there always have been a lot of important black issues locally that needed to be addressed, and those issues also resonated with NAACP supporters statewide.

Tolbert and Rutherford also took aim at the West Virginia Human Rights Commission, calling it a "paper tiger," and criticizing the agency for being slow in acting on a local complaint that was filed with the agency in May 2006.

Ivin Lee, executive director of the commission, defended her agency from the criticism by Tolbert and Rutherford.

When a complaint is lodged with the commission, it must be investigated within 180 days, which the commission has done, Lee said. However, that does not pertain to issues that might end up in the courts, Lee said.

If Tolbert or Rutherford is not happy with the commission, "they would have to spell those things out," Lee said.

Lee did acknowledge Tolbert's hard work on civil rights issues over the years.

"I'm sure he is tired, but he's done a lot of good work for the citizens of West Virginia," Lee said. "He's certainly paid his dues."

Pete Dougherty, president of the Jefferson County Board of Education, often has been on the other side of the table when Tolbert and Rutherford appeared before the school board.

Dougherty said Tolbert and Rutherford have worked effectively on issues, such as making sure school personnel were sensitive to the needs of minority students.

Tolbert's successor is expected to be decided Aug. 10 or 11 during the state NAACP conference in Beckley, W.Va., Tolbert said.

Tolbert had some advice for future NAACP leaders.

"You can't give up," he said. "Somehow, you're going to have to get someone's attention at the state or national level."

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