Date of Graduation
Eberly College of Arts and Sciences
Ronald L. Lewis
Joe William Trotter, Jr.
In an era historian Rayford W. Logan described as “the nadir of black history,” African Americans confronted growing discrimination, disfranchisement, segregation, and frequent acts of violence, including lynching in the decades before and after 1900. It was an era in which a nation, and its people, violated the basic principles of American democracy. Yet despite the difficulties facing black Americans in those decades, J.R. Clifford, West Virginia’s first black editor and practicing attorney, made significant strides in raising the condition and status of not only black West Virginians, but African Americans across the nation, as a result of his quest for quality black education, racial equality, and civil rights. Born into the free black family of Isaac and Mary Clifford amid the western mountains of the slave state of Virginia, Clifford rose to prominence through hard work and perseverance. Striving to improve not only himself, but the social, economic, and political status of all African Americans, Clifford frequently ignited racial, political, and class conflict that resulted in attacks on his newspaper, the Pioneer Press, as well as physical violence against his person. In 1895, Clifford became the first African-American attorney in the state to argue a case before the West Virginia State Supreme Court. In two of his appearances before the Court, Martin v. Board of Education of Paw Paw District, Morgan County and Williams v. Board of Education of Fairfax District, Tucker County, he challenged the constitutionality of West Virginia’s segregated school law. In September of 1895, while Booker T. Washington was giving a speech that later became known as the “Atlanta Compromise,” J.R. Clifford stood in a courtroom in Martinsburg, West Virginia demanding the right to empanel blacks on a jury, an action that led to violence and nearly cost him his life. At the national level, Clifford was a member of the Knights of Wise Men, the Afro- American Council, the American Negro Academy, the National Afro-American Press Association, the Niagara Movement, and the National Independent Political League. One of the original fifty-nine men called to attend the 1905 organizational meeting of the Niagara Movement, a forerunner to the N.A.A.C.P., Clifford was part of the male black leadership that Du Bois’ referred to as the “talented tenth.” This historic meeting has often been referred to as the “birth of, or the cornerstone for, the modern civil rights movement.” Clifford, and men like him, comprised a second tier of black leadership, civil rights activists who fought the battle for equal rights in their respective states and regions and provided a voice as well as support for national figureheads of the civil rights movement such as W.E.B. DuBois and Booker T. Washington and their ideologies. His family and cultural heritage, status as a free African American, integrated education, moral and religious principles, conception of “manliness,” and commitment to freedom and equality shaped the character of John Robert Clifford as a man. In turn, Clifford influenced black politics and political leaders in West Virginia from 1870 to 1933, not only through his political and legal measures, but also through his pioneer work in the field of journalism. As the first African American lawyer to practice in the state of West Virginia and one of the few black lawyers south of the Mason-Dixon Line, Clifford paved the way for the next generation of black attorneys who followed in his footsteps, men such as T.G. Nutter and Harry Capehart whose work in the West Virginia State Legislature and the N.A.A.C.P. carried on Clifford’s commitment to civil rights. His paper, the Pioneer Press (1882-1917), quickly became a voice for African Americans from across the region and a weapon in his battle for civil rights. When it closed its doors at the end of 1917, the Pioneer Press was the longest continually running black newspaper in America. For nearly sixty years, Clifford fought against racial injustice: from Civil War battlefields to the segregated railroad cars of the South; from rural courtrooms in the hills of West Virginia to the Presidential office of the White House; from the columns of a “modest” four-page paper called the Pioneer Press to the podiums of some of the nation’s greatest lecture halls. A true civil rights pioneer, John Robert Clifford had the heart, courage, principles, and character required to change American history.
Rice, Connie Park, ""For men and measures" : the life and legacy of civil rights pioneer J.R. Clifford" (2007). Graduate Theses, Dissertations, and Problem Reports. 3953.