There’s nothing all that remarkable about Rustin High School in West Chester, Pennsylvania—except that it is named for a gay black man who was a pacifist and a socialist. Even more amazing is that it was a Republican-dominated school board, in a conservative district that’s 89 percent white, that voted in 2002 to name the new school after Bayard Rustin, who grew up in West Chester.
Rustin helped catalyze the civil rights movement with courageous acts of resistance. In 1947 he led the first Freedom Rides and wound up serving thirty days on a chain gang, one of many times he was arrested for civil disobedience. He was the chief behind-the-scenes organizer of the 1963 March on Washington. During his activist heyday, when Rustin was much better known to the FBI than to the general public, it would have been impossible to imagine his name adorning a public high school. At Rustin High, where a huge photo of him adorns one wall, teachers incorporate aspects of his life into their classes. Phyllis Simmons, the principal, insists, “Our students know who Bayard Rustin is.”
Liberals and progressives need to celebrate leaders who challenge the powerful and mobilize the masses. Thanks to these movements, America is a more humane, inclusive and democratic society than it was at the start of the twentieth century. But it is not a tale of steady progress. At best it is a chronicle of two steps forward, one step back. The struggle for women’s suffrage, for example, started at Seneca Falls in 1848, but women didn’t win the vote until 1920. Victor Berger, Milwaukee’s Socialist Congressman, introduced the first bill for old-age insurance in 1911, but it took another twenty-four years for Congress to pass the Social Security Act. Which of today’s young activists will help change the country so profoundly that future generations will honor them? Here are some candidates:
§ Two years ago, when leaders of the immigrant rights movement met with President Obama in the White House, Angelica Salas challenged the president’s claim that his administration was focusing on deporting criminals and other security threats. “No, Mr. President, that’s not what’s happening,” Salas countered. “You’re deporting heads of households, mothers and fathers. Young people are sitting in detention centers when they should be sitting in the best universities in the country.”
Salas, the 41-year-old executive director of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles (CHIRLA), views her job as “telling stories”—giving voice to the immigrants whose lives are often ignored or misreported. She sees her own story in those lives; she was smuggled into the country at age 5 by her 14-year-old aunt. They were caught and sent back to Mexico, but they made it across the border on a second try. The family was torn apart again when federal officials raided the sweatshop where her mother worked and deported her. They were eventually reunited in Los Angeles, where Salas grew up. She joined CHIRLA after college and became director in 1999. Salas and CHIRLA have established day-laborer job centers, registered more than 75,000 new immigrant voters and led the fight for in-state tuition for undocumented students. Much of CHIRLA’s work involves what Salas calls “handing the baton”—recruiting and training the next generation of activists.