School to be named for Bayard Rustin

By Advocate.com Editors

Originally published on Advocate.com December 18 2002 12:00 AM ET

A suburban Philadelphia high school is to be named for an openly gay civil rights activist despite concerns about the radical politics of his youth. The late Bayard Rustin, a 1931 graduate of West Chester [Pa.] High School, began his activism for racial equality while still a youth. Rustin, who was black, recounted those days in a 1981 speech he made at West Chester Henderson High School. "There was not a single restaurant in this town that I could eat in," Rustin said in the speech. "There was not a single theater in this town that I could go to." A videotape of the speech was played at Monday night's school board meeting. The board voted 6-3 to name the new school after Rustin, who is best known for organizing the 1963 rally at which Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his "I have a dream" speech. Some say Rustin, who was a Quaker, was responsible for persuading King to embrace pacifism.

Opponents of naming the school after Rustin acknowledged his work in the civil rights movement but said they were troubled because he was gay, because he went to prison rather than serve in World War II, and because he was briefly a member of a Communist youth group in the 1930s. "If every one of the 16 million men and women of the armed forces refused to serve our country, we would be speaking German and Japanese," area resident Marvin Baughman said at the board meeting.

West Chester borough councilman William J. Scott, who attended the meeting and supported naming the school after Rustin, said he was inspired by the video of Rustin's speech. "They showed this tape, and the man really made his own case," Scott said. "He stood up as a great role model.... He helped integrate the restaurants, the theaters, the facilities in the school."

Rustin died in 1987.