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Clearwater civil rights icon Tal Rutledge: 'He wasn’t afraid to speak out.’

Mr. Rutledge died earlier this month at 91. City residents recall a leader who readily, and repeatedly, stood up to racial injustice.

CLEARWATER — At around lunchtime on Jan. 15, 1968, police showed up to arrest the president of the Clearwater branch of the NAACP at his dry cleaning business in North Greenwood.

Twelve days earlier, Talmadge Rutledge led a group of 20 protesters to stand in the middle of Palmetto Avenue and block Pinellas County school bus no. 121 on its route to the predominately white John F. Kennedy Junior High School.

Mr. Rutledge was calling out the unequal busing program, which shuttled white and black students past the all-black Pinellas High School, leading to the shuttering of Pinellas High and only a partial integration of Kennedy.

This photo accompanied the Jan. 4, 1968 story in the St. Petersburg Times about Rutledge's protest that halted a Pinellas County school bus en route to the predominantly white John F. Kennedy Junior High School.  [Times (1968)]
This photo accompanied the Jan. 4, 1968 story in the St. Petersburg Times about Rutledge's protest that halted a Pinellas County school bus en route to the predominantly white John F. Kennedy Junior High School. [Times (1968)]

Mr. Rutledge was fined $35 and sentenced to a year of probation for his physical stand against the flawed busing system but it became one of many ways he embodied the nationwide civil rights movement within the community where he was born and raised.

A persistent leader in the effort to end racial injustice in Clearwater while carrying on his family’s legacy of black entrepreneurship, Mr. Rutledge died on April 16. He was 91.

“You would have to consider him one of the icons of the North Greenwood community who invested time, money and prayers for many, many years,” said Pastor Carlton Childs, president of the Upper Pinellas County Ministerial Alliance. “If you ever wanted to find out anything about the injustices and who was trying to improve things, you’d go to Mr. Rutledge.”

• • •

Mr. Rutledge was born in 1929 into a pioneering North Greenwood family known for entrepreneurship, faith and community building.

His parents, Calvert and Emma Rutledge, were among the 22 residents that brought two small worship missions together in 1918 to charter Mt. Zion United Methodist Church.

All six of their children went on to run businesses, from hair styling to brick masonry. Talmadge Rutledge was drafted into the Army in 1950 during the Korean War and served two years before returning to North Greenwood.

For more than 30 years, he ran a dry cleaners, coin laundry and ice cream shop in a building at the corner of Martin Luther King Jr. Ave. and La Salle Street, the same block where he was born and would live most of his life.

Talmadge Rutledge in his North Greenwood laundromat. [Times (1994)]
Talmadge Rutledge in his North Greenwood laundromat. [Times (1994)]

While many African Americans faced retaliation from employers for participating in civil rights, owning his own business gave Mr. Rutledge freedom to be a spokesperson, said Leon Russell, chairman of the NAACP board of directors who retired in 2012 as director of the Pinellas County office of human rights.

Mr. Rutledge became the first president of Clearwater’s NAACP branch when it was chartered in 1962 and over the decades never lost his habit of urging residents he saw in church, the park or anywhere to become members.

“His (NAACP) presidency was during the period of integration of public accommodations, theaters and stores and public places,” Russell said. “It was the beginning of the lawsuits for school desegregation, so he was always in front of the city council, he was always that person coming out for the community."

From left, Talmadge Rutledge, the Rev. Joel Atkins and the Rev. Omega F. Neaman talk during an NAACP convention. [Times (1968)]
From left, Talmadge Rutledge, the Rev. Joel Atkins and the Rev. Omega F. Neaman talk during an NAACP convention. [Times (1968)]
• • •

In 1964, Mr. Rutledge’s brother, Charles, led a group of six African American parents who sued the Pinellas School Board to force integration of schools. Their federal case prompted the district vote to desegregate in 1971, although it required decades of monitoring by the courts and a committee of residents and attorneys.

The brothers were each local legends but fought for justice with distinct styles.

“Tal stood out front, he was very disappointed in how unfair things were and he wasn’t afraid to speak out,” said E.J. Robinson, a longtime friend who was drafted at the same time as Mr. Rutledge during the Korean War. “His brother, Charles, had the same mindset but their demeanors were different. Charles didn’t go out and stop a school bus, he went about it by suing the School Board.”

As public as he was as an activist, Mr. Rutledge kept his personal life private. His five children declined to comment for this story through family spokesman Reginald Rutledge.

Beyond school integration, Talmadge Rutledge was a constant presence in front of elected officials to defend the interests of North Greenwood.

In 1977 he led the questioning of the City Commission during a town hall meeting at the Martin Luther King Center, verbalizing residents’ fears that the city was “trying to get rid of us” through policies like the rezoning of North Greenwood parcels to lower densities.

In the 80s, as president of the North Greenwood Association, he lobbied the police and elected officials for help in dealing with an emerging drug problem in the neighborhood.

Sandra W. Rooks, executive director of The Curtis Museum, remembers Mr. Rutledge most for his defense of black students and teachers at the height of school integration in Pinellas County.

Rooks, who taught at John F. Kennedy Junior High School from 1969 to 1979, said he was an ally who worked to hold government accountable.

“He would say, ‘We need you teachers to let us know what’s happening and if there are things that need to be changed so we can work on them from the outside so you don’t lose your jobs,’” Rooks said. “He worked tirelessly to change things for the better.”

After his arrest in 1968 for halting the school bus, state and national NAACP leaders met in Clearwater to plan a strategy for his defense. About 150 held a peaceful protest at the courthouse and City Hall before a pre-trial hearing.

Even as he sentenced Mr. Rutledge on Feb. 7, 1968 to a fine and probation, Municipal Judge Roland Fox acknowledged his advocacy for the community.

“Last week you personally helped quell disturbances in your part of town. This is what you are respected for,” Fox said, according to a report in the St. Petersburg Times.

Demonstrators gathered on the steps of Clearwater City Hall on Jan. 22, 1968, to protest the arrest of Talmadge Rutledge, then president of the Clearwater NAACP. Rutledge had pleaded not guilty that morning to a charge of obstructing traffic for stopping a school bus in front of Pinellas High School. [Times (1968)]
Demonstrators gathered on the steps of Clearwater City Hall on Jan. 22, 1968, to protest the arrest of Talmadge Rutledge, then president of the Clearwater NAACP. Rutledge had pleaded not guilty that morning to a charge of obstructing traffic for stopping a school bus in front of Pinellas High School. [Times (1968)]
• • •

For Isay Gulley, who has led community revitalization efforts in North Pinellas for 40 years, Mr. Rutledge’s death reinforces the need for the next generation of civil rights leaders.

In 1991 when Gulley was spearheading a program through her Clearwater Neighborhood Housing Services that built homes in North Greenwood in partnership with the city, Mr. Rutledge confronted her with his concerns about the government’s involvement.

“He was afraid that if we built the houses for the people and they lost the homes, then the land would revert to government," she said. “He was a watchdog."

But two years later, after Mr. Rutledge saw new homes beginning to replace boarded-up shacks, he visited Gulley again.

“He said, ‘Well you won the bet because I was really betting that this was going to take the community away from us,’” Gulley recalled. “But he said ‘You know what? I’m a believer.’”

Even before Gulley won Mr. Rutledge’s approval of the housing program, she said it was valuable knowing he was there holding leadership to account.

“He talked the talk but he walked the walk, and you couldn’t fool him with just words,” Gulley said. “He was very watchful, a very smart man. People like that are missed because we all talk about succession in organizations. Who is the replacement for Tal? There is none.”

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