Andrew Dys

Preacher still inspires others on the march

Note: This article was first published in September 2007

If a preacher named Robert Toatley were alive today, he would have just come home after at least two days on the road. He would have been tired. His feet would have hurt, and his voice would have been hoarse.

He would have come from Jena, La., after marching for fair justice for all Americans, said his widow, Juanita.

"My husband didn't sit still when there was someone who needed him," Juanita Toatley said Friday. "He would have been in Louisiana, and he would have taken people with him from Rock Hill, too."

After he got home today, if he were alive, Robert Toatley likely would have put on a dark suit and blue tie to go with the snow-white shirt -- because his fraternity was blue and white -- and applauded as three teens just like he was so many years ago found out they had scholarship money to go to college.

The Rev. Robert Toatley, one of the most influential civil rights activists in Rock Hill history, marched in Washington in 1963 to hear Martin Luther King Jr. speak, then brought the message back to Rock Hill. Before that, he marched to end segregated buses in Rock Hill and marched to help the Friendship Nine. He organized protests and marched to end segregated Rock Hill schools in later years.

He put his family's safety on the line when he sent his son as one of a handful of black children to first integrate the schools.

He marched to the elections office to run for Rock Hill City Council when no black before him had ever tried. He marched for equality until he was too sick to walk.

Today is 10 years since the Rev. Robert Toatley died at age 75. But tonight, like every year since 1995, a college scholarship in his name of more than $1,000 will be given out to a student from each of the Rock Hill high schools.

There is no requirement of what those winners look like. The only requirements are what Toatley was himself: a student with excellent grades who needed the money.

Toatley worked as a barber and other jobs to put himself through school. He had no scholarships.

The Toatley scholarship is kept running by the Phi Beta Sigma fraternity, the same brotherhood Toatley belonged to. Toatley's selflessness and devotion to serving "under-represented people" is one of legacies, said James White, an assistant principal at Gold Hill Middle School. White, a brother with the fraternity, has helped with the program for years.

The Sigmas, locally and nationally, have mentoring programs for young men. The chapter at Winthrop University has been around for 20 years, helping young men that might be the future Robert Toatley. The local chapter made up of area alumni from many schools organizes the Toatley scholarship, White said.

Like the man himself, the Toatley scholarship is a testament to giving. Before Rock Hill had three high schools, there were two scholarships, one for each school. Now there are three, one for each school. All the money comes from tickets sold for an annual ball like the one tonight at the Ramada Inn on Cherry Road, an advertising book for the banquet, and donations, White said.

Before Toatley's death, the scholarship was one of the most important parts of his life, Juanita Toatley said. In the years since, she has gone to each banquet. She has worn blue and white. Juanita Toatley will put on the blue and white formal dress tonight and she will see another group of three people realize the dreams her husband fought for, on streets and in pulpits and in classrooms.

"He helped to organize the scholarship and he loved to see students get opportunities," she said. "That was his life. He wanted everyone to have a chance."

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