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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.
Desegregating 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 King, who came to Philly in August of that year to lend his voice to the cause.
“I must face the fact that it is a sad experience at this stage of the 20th century, to have to stand in the city that has been known as the ‘Cradle of Liberty,’ that has in its midst and in its presence, a kind of Berlin wall to keep the colored children of God out,” King said to a swelling crowd. “This school is symbolic of a tragic evil in our nation. It is symbolic of a cancer in the body politic which must be removed before our democratic health can be realized.”
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 some video from King’s rallies at Girard College that summer day. (Note that this video starts without sound, and there are some gaps in the middle.)
Before he spoke to the crowd, King was asked by a reporter how his visit Philadelphia was going.
“This trip has been a tremendous success already. It has really gone beyond our expectations,” the reverend said. “I’m convinced that we’re going to develop out of this tour a kind of coalition of conscience and the forces of goodwill that will be able to work in a very determined and passionate matter in the future to solve the problems of this city.”
Another speaker led the gathering in a version of “We shall overcome” that included the words “Philly shall be free,” and afterwards King urged the assembled people to get involved without delay.
“I want to suggest to you today that before you can solve a problem, you’ve got to get your mind right,” King said. “Often we’ve lost our self-respect and our sensitivity because we’ve been exploited and oppressed so long. … I come here today to say to you that we must not follow this philosophy.”
“We have a method that can bring about that togetherness. If we’re going to solve this problem, we have to realize the urgency of the moment. Don’t wait until next year. We’ve got to realize that the moment is before us now.
“We must say to those who tell us to cool off that we can’t cool off because of our self-respect. Because we love America too much.
“They tell us to adopt a policy of gradualism, and we’ve often adopted that policy only to discover that gradualism is little more than a do-nothingism, and an escapism which ends up in stand-stillism.
“We must say to the nation that now is the time. Make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time. Transform the dark yesterdays of man’s inhumanity into man into the bright tomorrows of justice and freedom.
“Now is the time, to get rid of segregation and discrimination. Now is the time to straighten up Girard College. now is the time to grant freedom to the negro all over the United States of America. Now is the time to make America a greater nation.”