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Riverside School to Be Named After King

Education: Unanimous decision follows racially tinged debate, national attention. Some said choice should reflect region's history.

January 06, 1998|TOM GORMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

RIVERSIDE — After a divisive public debate laced with racial overtones, the local school board voted Monday night to name its newest high school after civil rights champion the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.--making it the first school in Riverside County to be named after the slain activist.

Opposition to the name was voiced by more than a score of speakers--many of them arguing, after saying that they were not racist, that the school's name should reflect the region's citrus heritage or honor a person with Riverside ties.

But after two hours of public comment--and in the wake of national news media attention prompted by the opposition to the King name--the Riverside Unified School District Board of Education voted unanimously to adopt the recommendation of two of its trustees that the district's fifth high school be named after King.

The brouhaha over the naming surprised school officials, who were quietly moving toward a decision after 74 names were suggested for consideration. But the process attracted widespread news coverage after critics suggested that naming the school for King might jeopardize some students' college admissions because of the possible assumption that they came from a predominantly black school.

The school, under construction with a fall 1999 opening date, is in Orangecrest, a predominately white neighborhood on Riverside's south side that for decades was blanketed with orange groves.

Board member Maxine Frost was brought to tears in supporting the use of King's name, saying that his civil rights legacy "is the heritage I want to celebrate."

"My shining eyes represent tears on what has happened to this community" in debating King's name, she said.

Trustee Roger Luebs told the audience that had he predicted such a divisive debate over the school's name, he might have previously argued for a more neutral name. But he wasn't about to back down now, he said.

"Martin Luther King was a personal hero to me," he said. "I can't think of any [contemporary] hero for my children. When I heard [King's name was recommended], I said, 'Hallelujah. That's a no-brainer.' "

The ensuing debate, he said, shocked him. "Many of the arguments [against King's name] are not rational," he said.

So although he considered supporting a name that might have reflected Riverside's citrus history, "I feel better about [striking] a modest blow against bigotry," he said to the applause of many in the overflow audience.

There was only one speaker--from more than 50--who suggested that King's name was unacceptable for racial reasons.

Dale Dunn, who has lived in Riverside since 1964, told the school board that King's name was "not widely endorsed in the community."

"Everybody's going to think that we have a black school there," Dunn said unabashedly, only to be met with a quiet chorus of boos and catcalls. "We don't need a controversial name on it, which Martin Luther King's name is."

Other speakers suggested that the school be named after Eliza Tibbets, who in the 1880s helped develop the navel orange industry in Riverside, or for other local pioneers and World War II heroes--including Gen. George Patton and entertainer Bob Hope--with ties to Riverside County.

Many of the speakers prefaced their remarks by saying that they admired King--but then argued against the use of his name for various reasons. Many favored the name of the school's nearest neighborhoods, Orangecrest and Woodcrest.

One speaker mocked the others. "Don't get me wrong," said UC Riverside student Claudia Gomez, who favored King's name. "I like oranges."

Riverside's other high schools are named generically (Poly), for its geographic location (Arlington), for a civic pioneer (John W. North) and for a fictional Indian heroine made popular in a Helen Hunt Jackson novel and play (Ramona).

In endorsing the use of King's name, school board president Lewis Vanderzyl spoke passionately of the civil rights leader's life and called him a most appropriate role model for students. "By naming the school [after him], we will be taking a step to remind our community and our students the need to pursue his noble causes," he said.

Board member Robert Nava said the use of King's name "transcends the issue of race," adding that he was "very disturbed by the very ugly context of racial connotation" that had enveloped the discussion.

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