On Tuesday, January 17th, civil rights activist Steve Rutledge passed away peacefully in Lewisburg, WV, surrounded by family, after a long struggle with Parkinson’s disease. He was 81 years old.
Steve was a soft spoken, kind, and gentle person with the heart and courage of a lion, fighting for racial equality, civil rights, and social justice during the social upheaval of the 1960s and throughout his life.
He was, he liked to say, “a foot soldier in the movement.” His gentle manner disguised a determination, tenacity, and unshakable will that served him well into his last years, making him a remarkably effective community organizer.
Since settling in West Virginia during the 1970s, Steve worked to improve the lives of West Virginians. As a labor organizer and founding member of AFSME Council 77, he was a steadfast advocate for public employees’ right to collective bargaining. He investigated claims of discrimination under the West Virginia Human Rights Act and organized a statewide coalition against the National Alliance, a white supremacist group. “Whenever the Ku Klux Klan shows up in West Virginia,” Christian Giggenbach of the Register-Herald observed, “Rutledge is there organizing against them.”
He exposed substandard living conditions in Section 8 housing, which led to the buildings’ demolition and new construction of buildings that were named “Rutledge Run” in his honor. He brought his considerable energy and faith to organizing the original Charleston Multifest to promote cultural diversity, and as a member of the planning committee for Greenbrier County’s Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. march and celebration, he helped to create an inclusive celebration of human rights and community.
In 2004, his work was recognized with the State of West Virginia’s Civil Rights Award. “He worked tirelessly for the Civil Rights Movement’s highest principles,” the governor’s proclamation noted.
Steve spoke of the annual event by saying, “For me, the holiday honoring the life and beliefs of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is the only one that was created in our lifetime to place equality, justice, and peace at the top of our list of what is important. It is a day on, not a day off, because it gives each of us a chance to unite with one or more other persons to make something better – it could be our family, our school, our job, or our community.”
Stephen Manson Rutledge was born May 1, 1941, in Fort Collins, CO to Maude and Edward Rutledge, an economist, whose lifelong career in civil rights started in 1944, when he oversaw the desegregation of West Coast shipyards.
Steve’s early life was marked by tragedy, courage, and extraordinary lessons in the power of love. Steve was four years old in 1945, when his mother, Maude, died of heart failure one week after giving birth to his younger brother, Jonathan Manson Rutledge. In 1946, his father married Karyl Klinger. In 1949, seven months after the birth of their son, Anthony Michael Rutledge, Karyl died of cancer. Steve was eight years old.
Edward Rutledge then moved to the Bronx, NY, where his sister, Betty, and brother-in-law, David Liberson, helped raise the three boys. Steve played youth-league baseball in a ball field adjacent to Yankee Stadium, to which he always attributed his lifelong love of the Yankees and baseball.
His father became Housing Director of New York’s Human Rights Commission and in 1956, married Renata Cook, who was divorced with a daughter, Nina. The newly blended family settled in Croton-on-Hudson, NY. Still, it was his life with his aunt and uncle that became the model of loving family support that Steve carried with him into adult life, while his father’s civil rights work offered a model of civic engagement.
“In our living room were the architects of Brown v. Board of Education and fair housing policies,” Steve’s sister recalls. Frequent visitors included Judge Robert Carter, HUD Secretary Robert C. Weaver, Urban League Executive Director Whitney Young, Harlem Renaissance poet and activist Dr. Frank Horne, among many others who shared strategies to further civil rights legislation. In that environment, all four children developed an awareness of history and current events that differed from what was being taught in their schools.
Steve was particularly affected. He graduated from Croton-Harmon High School in 1959. Shortly after he entered Cornell University, college students from Northern states began joining the growing Southern freedom movement. Restless in an environment of social and cultural change, Steve transferred to a college in Wisconsin, and by the end of his sophomore year, feeling called to put his belief in human rights into action, he transferred again to Tougaloo College, ten miles north of Jackson, MS. There at the historically Black college, where he was one of two white students, he was voted student body president and earned a B.A. in history and sociology in 1964. He also joined Mississippi’s voter registration drive.
He had found his place. “I wasn’t just studying history anymore, I started helping make history, along with a lot of people, that became the focal point for the rest of my life,” he told Register-Herald reporter Christian Giggenbach in 2005.
While at Tougaloo, Steve served as treasurer on the North Jackson Youth Council of the NAACP and as field secretary for the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). He worked directly with pioneering civil rights leader Medgar Evers during Jackson, MS, sit-ins, boycotts, and voter registration drives, and he last worked with Mr. Evers on June 12, 1963, just hours before Evers was assassinated. Three days later, when police and white citizens attacked the Jackson funeral march for Evers, Steve drove the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. safely to the airport.
In 1964, during Freedom Summer, Steve met with Mickey Schwerner, who, with James Cheney and Andrew Goodman, was one of three Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) field workers murdered by the Ku Klux Klan. Every threat deepened Steve’s commitment, and he continued to organize voters and demonstrate for desegregation. He was arrested and jailed several times.
After graduation, from 1964 to 1966, he continued his public service as a Peace Corps volunteer in northeastern Brazil. On his return, he settled in New York City and married Tougaloo classmate Arverna Adams. He earned a Masters in Social Work from New York University in 1969. The couple soon discovered that they had very different goals: She was living her dream of settling in Harlem, while he longed to head south to the Appalachians. They divorced and remained friends until her death in 2004.
While organizing in the Ironbound district of Newark, NJ, in the early 1970s, Steve met his second wife, Terry Mansheim. With Terry, who was divorced, and her four children–daughters, Kathy and Jennifer, and sons, Tom and Tim–Steve moved south and settled in West Virginia. “Almost heaven,” Steve liked to sing as he drove with his family along the winding mountain roads of his adopted state.
Once again, in every way possible, he had found his place.
Steve is remembered with love by: his soulmate and devoted spouse of 51 years, Theresa A. Mansheim; his children, Kathleen Mansheim, Thomas (and Sarah) Mansheim, Timothy (and Sheila) Mansheim, and Jennifer Cherry; his brothers, Jonathan (and Lindy) Rutledge and Tony (and Renee) Rutledge; his sister, Nina D’Alessandro; as well as his grandchildren, Michael (and Heather), Kaydee (and Ricardo), TJ, Chloe, Cooper, and Luella; and his nephew, Elijah (and Liz) Rutledge.
He was preceded in death by his father, Edward Rutledge; mothers, Maude Manson, Karyl Klinger, Renata Cook; and his uncle and aunt, David and Betty Liberson.
It was Steve’s wish to be cremated. Memorial service will be 1 p.m., Saturday, February 4, 2023, at the Morgan Funeral Home Chapel – 252 Montvue Drive, Lewisburg, WV, with Joan Browning moderating. Visitation will be one hour prior to the service, Saturday, at the funeral home.
Online guestbook can be signed and livestream of the service can be viewed at www.morganfh.net.
Arrangements by Morgan Funeral Home, Lewisburg, WV.