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Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. visited Philadelphia many times, speaking to students, leaders and anyone else on whom he could impress his message of the need to fight nonviolently for racial equity and justice.
One of King’s most memorable appearances happened in August 1965, when he spoke to a massive crowd of civil rights demonstrators at Girard College in North Philadelphia.
The school is now the center for the country’s largest MLK Day of Service event, a fitting tribute to the person who helped change its discriminatory origin.
In 1848, the full-scholarship boarding school for economically disadvantaged kids was founded by philanthropist Stephen Girard — who detailed in his will that it should only ever accept white, male orphans.
More than a century later, the institution was still following that rule, despite Philadelphia’s growing African American population and the nation’s surging civil rights movement.
“Here it is, this massive educational system here, right in the heart of a black community, and none of the residents there in the community were being permitted to attend this school,” North Philly resident Bernyce Mills-DeVaughn told WHYY in 2019.
Desegretating Girard College was championed by famed Philadelphia NAACP leader and activist Cecil B. Moore. Protesters took to the neighboring streets on May 1, 1965, chanting for integration. The rallies continued for months, eventually attracting the attention of Dr. King, who came to Philly in August of that year to lend his voice to the cause.
It would take three more years of legal battles, but on May 20, 1968, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the school’s whites-only rule.
Here’s video from the scene when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke at Girard College that summer day.
This video was shot by KYW, and was originally broadcast Aug. 3, 1965 on KYW-TV. It is republished here courtesy of Temple University Library.