Team PCHR fanned across the city during the 2015 Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. holiday at events large and small – from engaging in neighborhood service projects to celebrating the ongoing commitment of others to helping the broader community focus on and advance King’s message.
“This is a day, a time, when this city not only comes together, but shows its continued leadership when it comes to protecting civil rights and cultivating harmony,” said Rue Landau, PCHR executive director. “It’s nothing short of inspiring to see the many personal and public expressions to that end – people of every age, color, gender, religion.
“Dr. King indeed would be proud.”
Landau, along with Commissioners Regina Austin, Marshall Freeman and Saadiq Jabbar Garner joined Mayor Michael A. Nutter and Todd Bernstein, lead organizer for the Greater Philadelphia MLK Day of Service at Girard College to open the day.
The setting was apt in that it celebrated the 50th anniversary of King’s visit to the then all-white private boarding school for boys that sits in the heart of a predominantly black North Philadelphia neighborhood. He joined an ongoing campaign waged by the Philadelphia branch of the NAACP to open up the school. Protesters marched day and night in the summer of 1965, demanding admittance for all.
Ensuing court cases — filed at the urging of then-PCHR Chair Sadie T. M. Alexander — finally led to integration, with black students entering the school in 1968 and girls enrolling in 1984.
Just as protesters marched at that time for equal access to education, people should have equal passion today to ensure that all students receive equal education, beginning with fair funding for the city’s public schools, Nutter told the crowd at Girard College. Pushing that agenda requires an engaged citizenry – a voting citizenry.
“In the birthplace of freedom and democracy, voting is the one thing that folks should be able to do in Philadelphia in a peaceful manner,” the mayor said.
To help erase some of those obstacles during this 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, volunteers constructed “Vote Here” bilingual signs in a dozen languages where data has reflected lower than average turnout. Advocates have argued that in a city where nearly 1 in 10 residents are born outside of the United States, small public accommodations such as these will help prevent inadvertent Election Day discrimination.
The signage assembly was one of several projects taking place at the campus. Students and adults alike busied themselves in activities to improve the lives of their neighbors – from building flower boxes for local schools to sorting clothing donations to area shelters to fixing computers to distribute to public housing residents to packing meals to deliver to seniors in need. The hundreds who gathered at Girard College were among a reported 135,000 volunteering at some 1,800 projects throughout the Delaware Valley.
At Girard, an on-site jobs and opportunity fair offered not only possible posts, but also strategies to land them, including for job seekers that have criminal records. PCHR’s Karen Forman and Monica Gonzalez guided dozens through the city’s “Ban the Box” law and how the agency investigates discrimination claims in employment, housing and public accommodation dealings.
“We had a steady stream of people coming through and getting information,” Gonzalez said. “They were impressed with the information and just hearing more about who we are and what we do.”
By the afternoon, commissioners and staff had gathered at the School District of Philadelphia’s headquarters, launch site for the MLK Day of Action, Resistance, and Empowerment march. The event, sponsored by Philadelphians Organized to Witness, Empower and Rebuild (POWER), was one of several held nationwide calling to reclaim the more confrontational aspects of King’s push for equality.
In the light of increased nationwide attention on slayings of unarmed black men at the hands of police and urban public education funding among other social inequities, march organizers declared the moment an opportunity to reclaim King’s fuller legacy. Thousands mobilized in Philadelphia and headed to Independence Mall, where ecumenical prayers and public commitments to equality for all took place.
“The march signaled a new way of thinking about MLK Day,” said Commissioner Rebecca T. Alpert, who along with PCHR Chair Thomas Earle, Landau and Deputy Director Randy Duque were on the scene.
“As a man on the train said to me, ‘King wasn’t about cleaning up neighborhoods.’ I agree,” Alpert said. “King, to me, was about bringing us all together to work for a better society. POWER’s message of ‘justice, jobs and education’ resonates.”
Earle echoed that sentiment, saying this event was just as legitimate and necessary as the many service projects throughout the city and region.
It was 20 years ago that Philadelphia led the nation in hosting the first MLK Day of Service, thanks in great measure to legislation dedicating the holiday co-authored by civil rights lion U.S. Rep. John Lewis and then-U.S. Sen. Harris Wofford, a Philadelphia-area resident and King confidant.
As much as King understood that building unity among neighbors was an essential part of building and maintaining peace, he recognized that convincing others of the merits of this call to action would be difficult. That case remains today amid challenging circumstances. But the rainbow coalition working shoulder-to-shoulder is affirming – and underscores the work of PCHR, Earle said.
“It was an incredible turnout and a very diverse crowd participating for many different reasons . . . and for many good causes,” he added.