Otto Rutherford led Oregon civil-rights fight

PORTLAND - Otto Rutherford, who was born to one of Oregon's first black families and battled throughout his life for racial equality in the state, has died. He was 89.

"He was gentle as a dove for peace, fierce as a warrior for justice," said former U.S. Sen. Mark Hatfield, R-Ore., who, as a young state representative, teamed with Mr. Rutherford to push for anti-discrimination laws in Oregon.

Mr. Rutherford and his wife, Verdell, led the Portland chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) when it confronted the 1953 Oregon Legislature with a bill to outlaw discrimination in hotels, motels, restaurants and amusement places on the basis of race, religion or national origin.

The state Senate approved the bill, but it faced a greater challenge in the House, where civil-rights bills had failed in 17 previous legislative sessions.

Verdell Rutherford used a hand-cranked mimeograph machine to copy thousands of letters to churches and organizations asking their support. Many other Oregonians, black and white, joined the campaign.

The bill was approved on a 46-11 vote in the House, a victory that historians hail as a critical turning point in race legislation in Oregon.

"Each generation of blacks here helped build life up just a little bit more for the young blacks coming along," Mr. Rutherford told The Oregonian in 1977.

Hatfield said of Mr. Rutherford, "He was of the old school, which never lost sight of the fact that he had the dignity of a human being to uphold, no matter what the laws of the culture imposed on him."

Mr. Rutherford was born Feb. 5, 1911, in Portland. His father and uncle came from South Carolina in 1896 to work as room-service barbers in the then-famous Portland Hotel. Blacks were prohibited from working in the barbershop.

Mr. Rutherford worked as a chauffeur and gardener. He studied psychology at Los Angeles Junior College. He worked for the Union Pacific Railroad during the Depression, helping to organize a chapter of the dining Car Cook and Waiters Union. He later became a master knitter at Dehen Knitting in Portland, helping to organize a union there.

During the Johnson administration, Mr. Rutherford became director of housing for the Office of Economic Opportunity in Portland.

He also served as the first executive director of the Urban League's Senior Adult Service Center.

After a stroke two years ago, Mr. Rutherford moved to an adult foster home. He died last Monday of cardiac and respiratory arrest at Providence Portland Medical Center.

Survivors include his wife; daughter, Charlotte Rutherford of Portland; son, William Rutherford of Portland; six grandchildren; and 10 great-grandchildren.

Donations can be made to the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund.