Pat Rostker and Maurice Morse changed schools and lives
Two local women who devoted themselves to bettering the lives of children and others — one of them, in part, as a plaintiff in a historic lawsuit that led to desegregation of Pasadena schools, the other through a lifetime of teaching and working for racial equality with civil rights organizations — have passed away.
On Nov. 7, longtime civic activist Maurice Morse of Altadena died of natural causes, said longtime friend and school volunteer Monica Watts. Morse was 86.
Born July 14, 1925, in Valdosta, Ga., Morse started teaching elementary school in 1962 soon after moving to California and joined the NAACP at that time. Morse started the Pasadena Saturday Tutorial Program shortly after being hired at Washington Elementary School. She also headed a character-building program for Pasadena youngsters.
A week before Morse passed, Pat Rostker — who along with her husband, Skipper, and two other families, sued the Pasadena Unified School District in an effort to desegregate local schools — died, also of natural causes, according to Rostker’s daughter Vivion Rostker.
The family’s case against PUSD was ultimately decided in 1974 by the US Supreme Court, making Pasadena the first school district outside of the South to be subject to court-ordered integration.
“A friend recently said she was a Renaissance woman. She was all for justice and causes,” said her daughter-in-law Phyllis Rostker, who added that Pat had devoted her later years to working on senior issues.
“She dealt with her parents and husband’s parents when they got older and realized how few services there were for people that needed elder care,” said Phyllis Rostker.
“She belonged to many organizations, the ACLU among them,” longtime friend Jackie Knowles wrote in an email to the Weekly. “She was a lifetime member of the League of Women Voters Pasadena Area, and she was a staunch supporter of the Ecumenical Council of Pasadena Area Congregations and the YWCA.”
In recent years, Rostker founded the Older Women’s League and Placement Service for Older Workers. “[She was] always working on behalf of women, children and equal opportunities for everyone,” Knowles said. “The fact that she was party to the lawsuit that led to the integration of the Pasadena public schools is HUGE, with reverberations today.”
The seeds of the lawsuit filed by the three families — the Rostkers, who are white, Bobbie and Jim Spangler, also white, and Wilton and Dorothy Clarke, who are African American — were planted in 1963, when La Cañada Flintridge opened its own high school as more and more African-American families began moving into Northwest Pasadena. This phenomenon prompted many white families to transfer some 800 children to the new school. A year later, PUSD built Blair High School for white families who didn’t want their kids attending John Muir High School, which was 60 percent African American. In stark contrast, Blair’s black student population was 23 percent, and only 20 percent of the students at Pasadena High School were black.
In 1967, the PUSD refused to redistribute minority students evenly at the district’s 32 schools, leading the families to file the suit. They lost in Superior Court, but refiled the case in federal court and won. The Supreme Court eventually upheld US District Judge Manuel Real’s original ruling in favor of the plaintiffs. Real called the district’s failed attempts at balancing racial populations at each school “intentional segregative acts.”
The Supreme Court agreed, but ruled against giving Real power to monitor implementation of what was called “The Pasadena Plan” in perpetuity. That ruling was backed by the court’s conservative majority but opposed by Thurgood Marshall, the court’s first black member and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund lawyer who successfully argued the Brown v. Board of Education case before the Supreme Court in 1954. That landmark case eventually led to school integration nationwide.
According to Chief Justice William Rehnquist, the court ordered the plan, and it was up to the local authorities and PUSD to implement it and monitor it. But Marshall, who voted against the parents, disagreed, saying that without judicial oversight, there were no guarantees that the district would continue balancing racial populations in all Pasadena schools.
“We should not compel the district court to modify its order unless conditions have changed so much that ‘dangers, once substantial, have become attenuated to a shadow.’ I, for one, cannot say that the district court was in error in determining that such attenuation had not yet taken place and that modification of the order would surely be to sign the death warrant of the Pasadena Plan and its objectives,” Marshall wrote in dissent.
Nearly four decades later, some have come to have mixed feelings about the case is known.
“When people complain about the district, a lot of stuff goes back to that,” said Board of Education President Renatta Cooper, who is African American. “It led to white flight from the district, which has now become middle class flight, and people have used it as a justification for staying away.”
Pat Rostker was born July 3, 1921, in Little Rock, Ark., which became ground zero for one of history’s seminal moments in the struggle for civil rights when a judge ordered that nine African-American students — the Little Rock Nine — be allowed to attend high school there. They did, but only after being escorted to their classes by National Guard troops.
“She came from a long line of fighters,” said Vivion Rostker, named for her aunt, who was on the side of the black students in Little Rock.
“My mom told me everybody was equal and everybody deserves a right to an equal education, and I really found out that a lot of my friends were not my friends and were racists. My true friends and family stuck by me,” said Vivion, 58, who attended Pasadena High School.
“Interesting she died on the eve of All Saints Day and was born on the eve of Independence Day,” Knowles said of her friend, who died on Oct. 31. “Rather fitting, don’t you think?”
Memorial services for Rostker are pending.
A memorial for Morse will be held at 11 a.m. Dec. 5 at All Saints Episcopal Church, 132 N. Euclid Ave., Pasadena. In lieu of flowers, donations can be sent to the Maurice Morse Scholarship Awards Fund, 595 N Lincoln Ave., Suite 103, Pasadena, 91103-3336.
Morse was member of the Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, a charter member of National Black Child Development Institute and a National and Life member of the NAACP. She raised scholarship funds for the NAACP through her “Christmas Stay at Home Tea.”
The NAACP honored Morse in 2003 for her work in education, establishing the Maurice Morse Scholarship Fund.
Morse is survived by her daughter, Dr. Jai (Johnnie) Downs, her twin sister Bernice Morse Spann and a host of nieces, nephews and cousins.
“Fifteen years ago, I was speaking at [school] board meetings, and it never occurred to me that anyone listened at home,” said Watts. “I got a beautiful handwritten letter from Maurice saying she was listening and informing me how to advocate for my children and that I should continue to fight. I have shared that letter with a lot of people. She became a friend and mentor to me.”
NAACP Pasadena Branch President Joe Brown said Morse and Rostker “were demonstrative in their activism and their lifestyle, and they fought to change things. Mrs. Rostker had to be strong to take on the establishment, and Maurice did not bite her tongue. That is what I will miss about her.”