Andrew Meacham, Times Staff Writer
Thursday, April 10, 2014 9:28pm
CLEARWATER — Charles Rutledge built his edifice for equality the same way he built his homes: block by block. A member of a well-known family in Clearwater’s African-American community, Mr. Rutledge learned early to push for what you want, remain firm and don’t back down.
In 1964, Mr. Rutledge and five other African-American parents sued the Pinellas School Board. Their federal case, Leon W. Bradley Jr. vs. the Board of Public Instruction of Pinellas County, led to the desegregation of Pinellas schools.
Mr. Rutledge, the last surviving member of the lawsuit that shaped the racial composition of schools to this day, died March 21 after an illness. He was 89.
“It took some courage by the people who actually did that, because the attitude in the mid 1960s by the Southern white establishment toward black people was one of domination,” said Enrique Escarraz III, the lawyer who took over the case after James B. Sanderlin became a judge. “There was a lot of violence toward blacks.”
Mr. Rutledge and the other parents — Leon W. Bradley, Alexander Green, Dan Bones, Sam Devine and Emma Lee Barton — found backing from the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, which assigned Sanderlin to the case.
Sanderlin argued that a decade after Brown vs. Board of Education, only about 200 of the county’s 10,200 black children were attending desegregated schools.
In 1965, the court ordered the school district to come up with a plan to eliminate race-based attendance zones. It wasn’t until 1971 that the Pinellas County School Board voted by a 5-2 margin to desegregate schools, allowing no school’s population of black students to exceed 30 percent.
Mr. Rutledge felt more a sense of relief than euphoria over the victory.
“It wasn’t about, ‘We did it,’ ” said Janice Rutledge Mobley, 62, his daughter and a former teacher of the year at Northeast High. “It was about, ‘I can breathe now. I know that the next kids will have the same things as everybody else has.’ ”
Charles Calvert Rutledge was born in 1924 in Clearwater, the fifth of six children. His father, entrepreneur Calvert Rutledge Sr., and mother instilled in them a work ethic.
“They made us get up in the morning and find something to do,” said Talmadge Rutledge, 85, Mr. Rutledge’s brother and a former president of the Clearwater NAACP. “That helped us.”
Between them, the Rutledges owned a grocery store, a hair salon, and laundry and dry cleaning establishments, among other successful businesses.
Charles Rutledge formed his own masonry company and did well enough to retire at 51.
Mr. Rutledge rode a bus past white schools to the all-black Pinellas Junior-Senior High. “In our science class, we had to borrow pots and pans from neighbors,” Mr. Rutledge later told the Times.
After graduating, he married Geleater Lewis in 1942. He learned to lay brick and block and eventually formed his own masonry company, putting up countless Rutenberg homes.
He and Geleater had six children, of whom he felt protective. Mr. Rutledge marched against discrimination with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and participated in sit-ins at restaurants and movie theaters.
Mr. Rutledge did well enough to be able retire at 51. With his last job, a funeral home, Mr. Rutledge created the structure for his next — co-owning Young’s Funeral Home with his son-in-law, Robert Young.
He remained active in the Clearwater NAACP, the Masonic Lodge No. 181, and the Mt. Zion United Methodist Church his parents had helped found.
By the mid 1990s, all of the other plaintiffs in the landmark lawsuit against the School Board were dead. Mr. Rutledge continued to advocate for improvements for black students, something he didn’t trust schools to make without court supervision.
Court-ordered busing ended in Pinellas County in 2003, when school choice allowed students to apply for magnet or fundamental schools. In 2007, the county dropped racial quotas altogether.
Some community activists pointed to a continuing “achievement gap” among black and white students, indicating that the work of desegregation was far from over.
Mr. Rutledge was wary of the changes.
“He told his grandchildren to look out,” his daughter said. “Don’t let this whole thing revert back to what it was.”