MARTINSBURG — The late James Alvin Tolbert, the Charles Town native who spent decades leading the West Virginia chapter of the NAACP, will be in the spotlight when he’s honored at the Martin Luther King Jr. Scholarship Banquet.
The banquet will include a presentation on Tolbert – who died Oct. 26, 2017, at age 85 – from Patrick Murphy, a longtime legislator, Berkeley County Commissioner and school board member who also is a member of the Martin Luther King Jr. Scholarship committee member.
Murphy, who lives in Martinsburg, said he’s preparing his banquet presentation by interviewing Charles Town area residents.
“I want to talk to people who knew James best,” he said. “I want to honor him by learning more about the sacrifices he had to make to accomplish all that he did for civil rights.”
Tolbert in 1963 was a founding member of the Jefferson County NAACP and served several terms as its president.
From 1986 to 2007, Tolbert was president of the state NAACP. He also served as chairman of the NAACP’s Region Three, an area that covers seven states.
Tolbert in 2000 co-founded the Jefferson County Black History Preservation Society along with George Rutherford, James Taylor and the late Nathaniel F. Downing.
Murphy said he first met Tolbert in 1983 at the 20th anniversary of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington, D.C.
Tolbert in a 2014 news story talked about King – slain at age 39 in Memphis, Tenn., amid a sanitation workers’ strike on April 4, 1968 – and the need to keep his work and legacy in the public eye.
“It is important for the community to keep King’s memory alive,” he said. “If it wasn’t for him we wouldn’t be where we are today.”
Carolyn Togans, another member of the 18-person scholarship committee for this month’s MLK banquet, talked of the importance of paying tribute to Tolbert.
“James Tolbert was a trail blazer as a civil rights leader. He made activism his life’s work,” she said. “He left a profound impact on the lives of many people across the State of West Virginia.
The committee chose to honor Tolbert at the 41st-annual banquet because “he and Martin Luther King Jr. both led lives of activism.”
The banquet not only provides a community event focusing on King’s advocacy for civil rights, it also provides the scholarship committee with an opportunity to raise money to help young people attend college.
Since the first scholarship banquet was held, the scholarship committee has raised nearly $190,000, according to Togans.
Each spring, $1,000 scholarships are awarded to promising students from Eastern Panhandle high schools. The Eastern West Virginia Community Foundation handles the application process.
Last year, the organization provided scholarships to 12 students.