Bayard Rustin, left, Deputy Director of the March on Washington, and James Baldwin, author, comment upon Alabama incidents during a New York news conference in 1963.
Bayard Rustin should be honored
School District questions honor for gay, conscientious objector
Bayard Rustin, left, looks on as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., right, addresses a public gathering in the riot-torn area of Los Angeles, California, in 1965.
By Noble Johns
WEST CHESTER, Pennsylvania (BNW) -- The statement, A great man is without honor in his own home is given new meaning with the rejection of Bayard Rustin in his hometown in West Chester Pennsylvania. More that anyone during the civil rights struggle, Rustin was the man behind the movement; no it was not Martin Luther King, it was Rustin.
When Bayard Rustin died in 1987, President Reagan said the civil rights activist who organized the 1963 rally at which Martin Luther King gave his "I Have a Dream" speech had "won the undying love of all who cherish freedom."
But that love apparently has limits in Rustin's hometown.
School board officials in West Chester are reconsidering their decision to name a new high school after Rustin following complaints from some board members that they had been unaware he was a conscientious objector during World War II, and that he was gay.
"His avoidance of any service during the Second World War doesn't sit very well with a lot of veterans," said former school board member Irl M. Duling, 73, who has gathered 500 signatures on a petition to find another name. "That has bothered some people, as have some other things about his personal life."
Those sentiments have created a sharp divisions in the Philadelphia suburb where Rustin grew up and graduated from high school in 1931.
Nearly 500 people turned out for a meeting last week after the West Chester Area School Board agreed to revisit its decision to put his name on a planned $67 million school. A majority were there to speak in favor of the lifelong activist.
"There is simply no other graduate of our school system who has had as much influence on our nation, or has had such a positive influence," school board member Thomas Wolpert said.
Rights, rides and resistance
Few dispute Rustin's impact on the civil rights struggle.
There is simply no other graduate of our school system who has had as much influence on our nation, or has had such a positive influence. -- Thomas Wolpert, school board member.
He joined the first Freedom Ride to fight segregation in 1947 -- an act that led to his being jailed for 30 days in North Carolina. In 1955, he was one of King's key aides during the Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott that became a landmark civil rights victory. He followed that by organizing the march on Washington, where King made history with his speech at the Lincoln Memorial.
If you combine his instigating other people not to serve in the military, along with the communist activities, it adds up toun-American activities. -- June Cardosi, school board member.
But for some critics, his accomplishments haven't made up for Rustin's refusal during World War II to register for the draft.
As a lifelong Quaker and a pacifist, Rustin wasn't obligated to serve in the military, but he drew a three-year jail term in 1943 when he also refused to perform alternative service in a non-combat role.
There has also been grumbling about Rustin's decision in 1936 to join the Young Communist League in New York. Five years later, he left the communists, saying, "It was inescapably clear that I had been wrong," but the break wasn't clean enough to satisfy some.
"If you combine his instigating other people not to serve in the military, along with the communist activities, it adds up to un-American activities," said June Cardosi, a West Chester Area School District board member.
She said she also had misgivings about naming the school after someone who was openly gay.
Rustin was persecuted throughout his life for being homosexual, and was arrested at least once on morality charges after police spotted him in a romantic encounter with another man. At the time, homosexual behavior was illegal in many states.
A special committee has given itself until February to decide whether to name the building after Rustin or pick someone else. Construction on the school has yet to begin.
Supporters note that Rustin has been honored many times elsewhere, with no controversy.
His portrait hangs in the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. New York City named a high school after him, and West Chester named a pair of basketball courts after him in 1996.