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Trailblazing for Equality
January 16, 2012 - Jodi Burnsworth
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Today is Martin Luther King, Jr. day, where we honor him and the many valiant, forward-thinking leaders of the civil rights movement. One of those leaders, John Robert Clifford from West Virginia, was a Civil War veteran and a civil rights pioneer, including being a founding member of the Niagara Movement.
“J.R.” Clifford was born in Williamsport, present-day Grant County in 1848. Clifford’s parents and grandparents were “free blacks” and had lived in the region for several generations. Because there were no schools for colored children in the area, he attended school in Chicago in the early 1860s. In 1864, at age fifteen, Clifford enlisted in the United States Colored Troops and served until 1865. In the early 1870s, he enrolled in Harper Ferry’s newly formed Storer College, which was created to educate the region’s African-American population. After earning his degree in 1877, Clifford became a teacher at, and later principal of, a segregated public school for African Americans in Martinsburg.
In 1882, Clifford began publishing “The Pioneer Press,” a newspaper that was distributed nationally to a largely African American audience. Publishing the newspaper until 1917, it was the longest running weekly newspaper dedicated to African American issues during that time period. In 1887, Clifford became the first African American attorney admitted to the West Virginia State Bar. He practiced law for forty-five years and was active in both state and national politics. Clifford was the President of the National Independent League and the first Vice-President of the American Negro Academy.
In 1898, Clifford won a landmark civil rights and education case before the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals. In Williams v. Board of Education, Clifford argued against the Tucker County Board of Education’s decision to shorten the school year for African American school children from nine months to five months, while keeping a full term for white students. Clifford encouraged Mrs. Carrie Williams, a teacher at the colored school in Coketon, to continue teaching regardless of funding. He then filed a lawsuit against the school board for her back pay. Clifford won the case in a jury trial, and then won again before the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals. The court’s decision bolstered equal education rights for African American students statewide.
Clifford’s victory in the Williams case occurred over fifty years before the landmark “Brown v. Board of Education” case and was one of the few civil rights victories in a southern state’s high court before the turn of the 20th century. The J.R. Clifford Project, an organization dedicated to preserving Clifford’s legacy and researching his life, presents reenactments of this trial.
With other prominent African American civil rights leaders such as W.E.B. DuBois, Clifford held the Niagara Movement’s first American meeting at his alma mater Storer College in 1906. The Niagara Movement called for full civil rights for African Americans and an end to legalized segregation, led to the formation of the NAACP a few years later and is considered to be the cornerstone of the modern civil rights movement.
Clifford died in 1933 at the age of 85 in Martinsburg and is buried at Arlington National Cemetery.
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John Robert "J.R." Clifford - Photo courtesy of West Virginia Division of Culture and History