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MLK Day to focus on Girard College

In 1965, Ken Salaam was a 16-year-old civil-rights activist, protesting day and night against a whites-only admissions policy at North Philadelphia's Girard College.

In 1965, Ken Salaam was a 16-year-old civil-rights activist, protesting day and night against a whites-only admissions policy at North Philadelphia's Girard College.

Yesterday, inside Founders Hall, Salaam was hailed for his work for social justice as officials announced that the school would be the key assembly point of the 15th annual Greater Philadelphia Martin Luther King Day of Service on Jan. 18.

Each year, tens of thousands of volunteers across the region make the King holiday a day of community service. Last year, the program drew 65,000 volunteers. This year, organizers predicted, a record 70,000 would work on more than 1,000 projects.

Salaam, who also goes by the nickname "Freedom Smitty," said it was an honor to visit the 43-acre campus in support of the Day of Service.

The school, opened in 1848, was founded by Stephen Girard, the banker and merchant, who in his will ordered that a school be established to assist needy children in Philadelphia, but limited admission to "poor white, male orphans."

And that was how it remained for decades, segregated by gender and race.

The whites-only policy sparked protests in 1965 that included a speech by King outside the private boarding school's massive walls.

A 14-year legal battle ended in 1968, with a U.S. Supreme Court decision to let stand a lower-court ruling allowing black boys to attend. The first black boys - four of them - enrolled that year.

Girls were allowed to enroll in the 1980s.

Salaam said his Girard College protests, alongside activists Cecil B. Moore, Georgie Woods, and others, had transformed his life.

"I quit school," said Salaam, who has run a house-painting business for 40 years. "I wasn't a bad student. What I saw was so real that I had to be here all the time."

Salaam later went to Mississippi and other states to work in the civil-rights struggle with Fannie Lou Hamer and others, he said.

"That's how I came to be called Freedom Smitty," said Salaam, who later earned a GED.

"People don't realize that [the integration of] Girard College not only changed Philadelphia, it changed the country," he said.

Todd Bernstein, founder and executive director of the Philadelphia King Day of Service, noted the significance of having Girard College as the site from where the event's main projects will emanate.

"Because of the struggle, thousands of kids of color have been educated here," Bernstein said.

Among the projects will be assembly and distribution of home-weatherization kits for low-income families and training on weatherization techniques. Two hundred people are scheduled to distribute 15,000 free compact fluorescent lightbulbs.

There will also be hundreds of meals prepared for the homeless and for those facing life-threatening illness.

Yesterday's news conference on the project began with a performance by children in the Universal African Dance and Drum Ensemble of the Unity Community Center of Camden.

Students from several area schools unveiled a 100-foot mural they had made with guidance from the city's Mural Arts Program. The mural featured the students' interpretation of Girard College's civil-rights legacy and current and future social-justice issues.

Mayor Nutter presented the annual Harris Wofford Active Citizenship Award to the investment company Vanguard Group. The award honors organizations and individuals for their community service.

Vanguard has been a longtime supporter of the Day of Service, Nutter said. He noted that 800 volunteers from the company had participated in the project last year.

Autumn Adkins, who was named president of Girard College last year, said it was inspiring for the school to participate in the Day of Service.

"For so long the school was closed off. It retreated even after the change in the will," Adkins said. "The school was bruised in a way. I think it's really an important step in continuing the healing process for the school to be so involved in this type of community service."

Bernstein said it was a tribute to history to have the program at the school.

"We are so fortunate to be here at Girard College on the 45th anniversary of Dr. King being here, to take that legacy and turn that history into action," he said.

More Information

To volunteer for the King Day of Service, call 215-665-2475 or go to