As we approach the 60th anniversary of the famous March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, I’d like to take the time to recognize a West Chester native who helped make the event possible. Born in the borough in 1912 and raised by his grandparents, Bayard Rustin would come to address contemporary issues by acting in the tradition of Chester County. Though an unsung hero during his lifetime, his impact resounds to this day.
While I could go into a whole “Hometown Hero Spotlight” kind of history report, I’ll point you to this video from the Chester County Archives and Record Services YouTube channel. It thoroughly covers all the major points I would have space for in an article of this size, and then some. For this article, however, let’s look at the lasting legacy of Rustin that isn’t readily found on YouTube.
Rustin’s Local Legacy
For those of you who live in the area, especially those with school-aged kids, the name Bayard Rustin should be familiar. After all, it’s the name of West Chester Area School District’s newest High School. When naming the new school back in 2002, the community decided to honor the alumnus Bayard Rustin. But, just as during his lifetime, there were concerns about acknowledging this civil rights hero.
Bayard Rustin's identity and affiliations — as an openly gay man, a conscientious objector to WWII, and a one-time member of the Young Communist League — have elicited mixed reactions over time. This has led to Rustin's monumental contributions, such as organizing the pivotal March on Washington, being overshadowed in many historical accounts.
Rustin's legacy, not unlike many artists and political theorists, has only grown posthumously. He was pardoned for a 1953 conviction, received formal acknowledgement from President Reagan, and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Obama. As we’ve seen, his contributions have even led to his name being memorialized by our local school district.
Continuing the March: 60 Years Later
Looking forward to the 60th anniversary of the historic March on Washington, another gathering is planned for August 26th on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. This time, Martin Luther King III and several prominent civil rights activists will lead the event. Though more than half a century later, the planned rally aims to continue that famous dream while incorporating contemporary issues.
With a focus on topics like LGBTQ rights, gun violence, book banning, and other political hot buttons of today, it’s easy to see Rustin’s legacy at work. After all, many of the concerns expressed over naming the new high school Bayard Rustin included his being openly gay and his stance on nonviolence. Imagine if he had been able to see his lasting contributions!
The planned gathering of Martin Luther King III is not the only event at the National Mall during the 60th anniversary of that famous March on Washington. From August 18 – September 18, Philadelphia based Monument Labs is hosting Beyond Granite: Pulling Together along the National Mall. Living in the same tradition as Rustin, this exhibition is the first of a new initiative of projects to utilize the National Mall for enhanced civic engagement.
This August 28th, if you take a moment to remember the dream expressed by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., take an extra moment to remember the West Chester native who helped organize so much change, including that march. Remember Bayard Rustin, why we’ve named a High School after him, and how his fight continues.
One of the best things about living in Chester County is how we keep the best of our past while incorporating what works of the new. Though sometimes we end up lost in the moment, or held up by tradition, people like Bayard Rustin highlight the very best of our area. To all those who are continuing to work in the spirit of his tradition, the spirit of the tradition of Chester County, thank you!
I hope you found this article interesting! While this article differs from my usual articles, I felt it’s important to bring attention to this hometown hero and wanted to provide more than a written version of the many YouTube video histories. If you like this format or have a hometown hero you’d like to see me highlight, please let me know! I’m always open to chat, even when it’s not about real estate.
Thank you for reading to the end! If Rustin’s story inspired you, please share this article with friends and family!