Many in the Valdosta area say the firing of Touchton was politically motivated. They cite her prominence in various struggles. "She is a very outspoken person," said Gladys Williams, a leader of the Peoples Tribunal. "They think they can shut her up by taking away her livelihood. That is why [university president Hugh] Bailey decided to get rid of her. They want to start with her and see what will happen and what we will do."
The Peoples Tribunal is a civil rights organization that led a fight against police brutality and for justice for Willie James William, a Black man who was killed in police custody three years ago. The organization has campaigned in defense of workers and farmers in the region.
Notice of termination
Touchton, 41, has been an instructor and laboratory coordinator for about three years in the university's biology department. She said she has received excellent yearly evaluations from her superiors. The university has given no reason for its failure to renew her contract. Touchton said she received a letter October 31 from the acting vice president for academic affairs that states, "I am writing to inform you that this is to serve as your nine months' notification that you will not be employed with Valdosta State University past July 31, 2002."
Touchton and other activists said that the letter itself violates her contract by giving her insufficient notice. The VSU administration says it does not have to comment on the firing. Area activists have responded by mounting a vigorous defense campaign.
More than 100 people turned out November 15 on the VSU campus for a demonstration organized by the Living Wage Campaign, an organization fighting to raise the wages of campus workers. The attack on Touchton was a prominent feature of the rally.
"We cannot allow this university to continue business as usual until this issue is dealt with," said Rev. Floyd Rose, a founding member and a leading activist of the Peoples Tribunal, at a press conference earlier on the same day. "There was no announcement of downsizing. We can only speculate that her support of the Living Wage Campaign is the cause of her termination. [Supporters of the campaign] cannot allow this to go on without protest."
The fight for a living wage is becoming a volatile issue on the Valdosta campus. In a region where there are few unions and where wages have been historically low, incomes at the university are even lower than average, with many workers earning less than $10,000 a year. Activists in the NAACP, the Living Wage Campaign, and the Peoples Tribunal all see the attack on Touchton as an attack on their right to organize effectively, and have promised to fight until her job is restored.
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