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In the year of Selma, Phila. had its own rights march

Demonstrations and months of marches led to the integration of Girard College. Photo: Jack T. Franklin
Demonstrations and months of marches led to the integration of Girard College. Photo: Jack T. FranklinRead more

As Americans, we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the march in Selma, Ala., this month, as well as the implications of the voting rights legislation that followed in that year. While commemorating those events, keep in mind that Philadelphia has a comparable story: the months-long march to integrate Girard College.

Girard College is a privately funded boarding school in the heart of a predominantly African American neighborhood. It was established by one of the greatest humanitarian and philanthropic heroes in American history, Stephen Girard. The school opened in 1848, created for "poor white male orphans." It still provides education, room, and board to students in grades 1 through 12. But as the nation changed, so did Girard College.

A march that went on day and night for seven months began in 1965 with a group of young people known as the "Freedom Fighters." Cecil B. Moore, the president of the local chapter of the NAACP, rallied the African American community to support the march around the 43-acre campus. The effort was significant, attracting many of the same civil rights personalities involved with Selma, including the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

As in Selma, the march was not always peaceful. Hundreds of uniformed and undercover police officers were involved, and marchers were subjected to violence and jail time. The Hicks family, plaintiffs in the court case to desegregate Girard, received numerous death threats.

Those who supported the exclusion of minorities mounted a desperate campaign of resistance. Some advocated closing the school instead of heeding the call to change. The issue divided the City of Brotherly Love, as both sides dug in to support their views.

But at stake was education and the opportunity for a better life for poor students of all ethnic groups. Thank God we live in a country where freedom of speech and the right to assemble are protected by the Constitution.

The challenge to Girard's will was a bitter fight and one of the biggest achievements that African Americans in Philadelphia won. Far too often, underrepresented people become discouraged and uninvolved with the very circumstances that affect them. That's why I applaud the young people all over this nation who marched to protest the killing of unarmed people, as in the case of Ferguson, Mo. Of course, I don't advocate the senseless destruction of property or attacks on police that accompanied some of the civil unrest.

Dr. King is the model we should follow, as he devoted his life to fighting nonviolently for the rights of all. I believe Girard would approve of the changes King and thousands of others helped bring about at his school. I am grateful to God for both men, as I have benefited from their actions.

I only hope and pray that I may contribute even a fraction of what these two great men did for the common good.