Ken Plum: Two civil rights heroes

ken plumAbout a week ago there was a memorial service for Reston’s founder and namesake, Robert E. Simon, Jr., who passed away about a year ago. Several people gathered at the Hyatt Hotel in Reston Town Center to hear the stories and to celebrate the life of a truly remarkable man. He became head of Carnegie Hall in New York at age 23 when his father passed away. The sale of the Hall later would give him the money to buy the more than 6,000 acres in Northern Virginia that would become Reston. Drawing upon his experiences of living in Europe for extended periods of time, he would build a community that through its mixed-use design with village centers would foster the development of community.

Most remarkable for its time in the mid-1960s was his insistence that the community be open to all persons including black people. Virginia at the time was a very segregated society. Massive Resistance was being used by political leaders to keep from integrating the schools as the Supreme Court had ruled nearly a decade before. Housing patterns and communities were strictly segregated. Some suggest that Bob Simon’s adamance that his new community be open to all people was a response to the discrimination he felt as a Jew particularly when he was at Harvard. He was not casual in his beliefs that his new town should be inclusive; that policy made financing very difficult and for a while seemingly almost impossible. With all the other many good things that can be said about Robert E. Simon, Jr., I consider him a real civil rights hero.

Last week gave me an opportunity to see another of my civil rights heroes, former governor Linwood Holton, who came to George Mason University to participate in a ceremony naming one of the plazas at the University in his honor. Governor Holton served as governor of Virginia from 1970 to 1974–the first Republican to be elected governor since Reconstruction. George Mason University was interested in honoring him because he was the governor that signed the bill that converted the former University of Virginia extension to the new George Mason College. It is now the largest university in Virginia and is in the top tier of research universities in the country.

I consider Linwood Holton a civil rights hero because one of his first actions as governor after he had moved his family into the Executive Mansion was to enroll his children in the local public schools that were the segregated black schools. A picture of him walking one of his daughters into an all-black school to enroll her was on the front page of the New York Times. It was a signal to the world of the emergence of the New South where racial segregation was slowly but surely being cast aside.

I am honored to have known both men and to have them as friends. As courageous as they were, I do not think that either thought of himself as courageous. Each simply believed in doing the right thing. They are examples for all of us to follow.

Ken Plum is a member of the Virginia House of Delegates.



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