A Proper Tribute for Walter Mills

July 29, 1994

Walter S. Mills was a wonderful man -- a man who devoted his life to the children of the Parole community, a man whose courageous battle for equal pay for black educators marked a giant step toward fairness for thousands. He deserves to be honored, and renaming Parole Elementary for him is a perfect, fitting way to do that.

Mr. Mills, who died July 18 at 85, spent 46 years at that school, from 1932 until his retirement in 1978. He was the principal for most of that time.

In 1939, this quiet gentleman made history by suing the county Board of Education for paying him $750 less a year than his white colleagues. It is easy now to forget what a risk Mr. Mills took. This was, after all, an era when school lawyers argued that black educators didn't deserve equal pay because they had poorer results with students than whites; and besides, it would cost taxpayers too much. Refusing the school system's offer of a 10 percent raise to drop his suit, Mr. Mills took his chances in court. Represented by Thurgood Marshall, later a Supreme Court justice, he won. Discriminatory pay practices against black educators effectively ended.

The idea of renaming Parole Elementary for Mr. Mills has been around for some time and has gathered force since his death. His admirers want the school board to suspend its policy that a person be dead for three years before a facility can be named for him or her, but there is no reason to do that.

The policy is in place for a good purpose -- that is, to guard against naming buildings after people whose deaths or retirements might inspire a rush of sentiment but whose accomplishments do not merit such lasting monuments. Granted, this reason does not apply to Mr. Mills; his legacy was undisputed long before he died. But making an exception for him invites future exceptions. And besides, what is the harm in waiting three years to honor him? That is not such a long time.

In fact, we would argue he deserves a better tribute than he will get if a ceremony is thrown together in the few short weeks before Parole re-opens to students next month. The three-year waiting period can be used to plan a proper memorial, to have plaques, a portrait or a new school sign made, and to teach the children of Parole who Walter Mills was and what his legacy is.

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