PARSONS — A West Virginia attorney has teamed up with the J.R. Clifford Project to release a book shining new light on some of the state’s old civil rights cases.
Thomas Rodd recently published "Stories from West Virginia's Civil Rights History, A New Home for Liberty" under Quarrier Press, with the West Virginia public libraries as its main recipient. The book deals with what Rodd calls West Virginia's "unique" place in civil rights history and aims to improve public understanding.
"West Virginia's civil rights history has really not gotten the attention it should — in part because of lingering bitterness and sectional conflict arising from the Civil War era," Rodd said. "Especially in the 150th anniversary of the war and West Virginia's statehood, the time was ripe to help shed more light on that history.
"The color line is always painful to confront, but it's necessary to make progress."
In particular, the book takes aim at a case of particular interest to Rodd’s foundation, the J.R. Clifford Project. The case of Carrie Williams and her lawyer John Robert Clifford is the story of an African American teacher in the 1890s, working in a segregated school but arguing for equal pay and equal education, regardless of race. Clifford was also the state’s first African American attorney.
That story, Rodd notes, demonstrates "how progress comes from persistence in the pursuit of justice and service to others — even when there are setbacks." It’s his hope for modern readers to see how good people might transcend stereotypes and cooperate.
"That’s a message we all need," Rodd said.
The J.R. Clifford Project began in 2003 when Rodd, Charleston attorney Kitty Dooley, and former state Supreme Court Justice Larry Starcher organized a community re-enactment of the Carrie Williams case in Martinsburg, in celebration of the 50th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education. That show has since gone on the road across the state for 12 years now. Their goal: to keep the state's civil rights contributions on modern minds.
"The Carrie Williams case was important in keeping hope and progress alive for civil rights in West Virginia," Rodd said. "In 1898, at a time when African Americans were losing the right to vote and to an education in former 'slavery states' (like Virginia), blacks in West Virginia and their white allies fought and were successful in creating a better legal and political climate for the exercise of fundamental rights.
"I think that positive — and really unique — legacy still affects our culture and our politics."
The project was funded in part by the West Virginia Governor's Community Partnership Grant Program and the West Virginia Humanities Council. For Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, it also presented a special living history program titled A New Home for Liberty — Human Rights, Slavery, and the Creation of West Virginia, at the Cortland Acres Nursing Home in Thomas.
Rodd said there is no question the issues raised by pioneers such as Williams and Clifford continue to make news today. Asked of the history in the stories he’s collected and the impact it's had on the modern world, Rodd turned to the Carrie Williams case opinion for his reply.
"Judge Marmaduke Dent says that 'even if it costs ten times as much' to provide equal educational opportunity to historically disadvantaged people, it should be done," Rodd said. "I agree, which is why today affirmative action is not only legal (in my opinion) but also necessary, to correct past imbalances."