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School & District Management

Pa. Board Divided Over Naming School for Rustin

By Catherine Gewertz — December 11, 2002 2 min read

So proudly did West Chester, Pa., claim the civil rights luminary Bayard Rustin as its most famous native son that the school board decided to name its new high school after him.

But that was before they found out that the late Mr. Rustin was gay, had belonged to a Communist group, and had refused to serve in World War II.

Now, the board is rethinking its decision, sparking a debate that is drawing national—and unwelcome—publicity.

“It’s embarrassing that this is even happening,” said Stephen Sander, a retired teacher in the Philadelphia suburb who supports naming the school after Mr. Rustin. “It makes us look like 1950 all over again. [Mr. Rustin] is only controversial to bigots. To everyone else, he’s an American hero.”

The board was expected to decide the issue by the end of January.

Born in 1912, Mr. Rustin attended West Chester schools. A Quaker, his pacifist beliefs led him to refuse to register for World War II or to perform alternative service, a move that put him behind bars for 28 months. He went on to work extensively in the civil rights movement, perhaps most notably as the chief organizer of the 1963 March on Washington, during which the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. made his “I Have a Dream” speech. Mr. Rustin died in 1987.

June L. Cardosi, a board member for the 12,000-student West Chester district, noted that the city already has a park named after Mr. Rustin. She and others oppose naming the high school after him mostly because of his anti- war efforts. That work, combined with his homosexuality and his four-year membership in the Young Communist League, makes him an inappropriate role model for teenagers, she said.

“We acknowledge that he made valuable inroads in the civil rights area, but we are more concerned with his personal characteristics,” Ms. Cardosi said.

Officials of civil rights and gay-support groups lamented the dispute.

‘In the Best Tradition’

“What kind of message does this send to young people: that such an important figure in the civil-rights movement is not worthy of our respect because he’s a gay man?” said Eliza Byard, the deputy executive director of the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network, a national group based in New York City.

Hugh B. Price, the president of the National Urban League, also based in New York, said that Mr. Rustin and others who experienced oppression in America had looked to Communism for the freedom that eluded them at home. And Mr. Rustin’s anti-war activities represented not an act of disloyalty, Mr. Price said, but a commitment to nonviolence.

“What he stood for—tolerance, civil rights, justice, and political activism—is in the best tradition of America,” Mr. Price said. “His hometown should not only name a school after him, but they probably ought to have a [high school social studies] course built around his life.”

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A version of this article appeared in the December 11, 2002 edition of Education Week as Pa. Board Divided Over Naming School for Rustin

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