Our Opinion: An appropriate honor for son of Great Barrington

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The vote at Monday night's annual town meeting in Great Barrington to rename Monument Valley Regional Middle School after native son W.E.B. Du Bois is a defining moment in the town's gradual embrace of the civil rights leader, author and educator. The decision didn't come without controversy, but that's fine — Mr. Du Bois didn't come without controversy either.

Mr. Du Bois, who was born in Great Barrington in 1868, wrote his seminal work, "The Souls of Black Folk," just 40 years after President Lincoln freed the slaves. He was a pioneering civil rights leader, setting the stage for, among others, Martin Luther King Jr., who freely acknowledged Du Bois' considerable and lasting influence. (See Gerson column below.)

Like many civil rights leaders over the decades, Mr. Du Bois grew frustrated with the resistance to the equal rights movement by a nation whose racism is deep-rooted, and much in evidence today. This led to his dalliance with communism and the Soviet Union, which he thought was building the kind of egalitarian society he advocated. It wasn't, of course, and after souring on the Soviets and grown weary of the harassment by Cold War hysterics in the United States government, he moved to Ghana, where he worked to pursue an ideal African state. He died there and is revered there today.

That dalliance with communism was at the root of Great Barrington's reluctance to honor Mr. Du Bois, and those concerns were expressed Monday night by those who opposed to renaming the school in his honor. Mr. Du Bois, however, cannot be defined by his flirtations with the Soviets. It is his tireless work over the decades as a writer, historian, teacher and passionate advocate of the African-American cause that defines him and makes him worthy of honor by a hometown he remembered fondly and wrote about eloquently.

On Tuesday morning, Robert and Amy Putnam of Alford, in celebration of Monday's town meeting decision, shared with The Eagle a letter to the editor they submitted and that ran 13 years ago advocating that a new school in Great Barrington be named after Mr. Du Bois. Although that effort failed, the arguments in favor presented in that letter are as relevant today as they were 13 years ago, and they are centered around Mr. Du Bois' hometown. "How did an impoverished, fatherless black child born three years after the end of the Civil War become an internationally recognized scholar?" wrote the Putnams. "The answer lies in the values of our community. Du Bois' impressive intellectual accomplishments, while rooted in his native ability, would not have been possible without the support of the community."

On Monday night, the community showed that support again. The Du Bois Center in Great Barrington, which opened in 2006, and many others laid the groundwork for that vote, and while Mr. Du Bois' advocates have found ways to honor him throughout Great Barrington there is no better way of remembering the great scholar than by naming a school after him. We urge Stockbridge and West Stockbridge, members with Great Barrington of the Berkshire Hill Regional School District, to support the name change as well and for the School Committee to complete the process by approving it. It is overdue.

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