There are civil rights stories everywhere. Most Americans can name a national Civil Rights figure and hopefully know something about the key pieces of civil rights legislation in history. But most don’t know anything about what happened down the street.
My experience in this regard was a little different, growing up at Girard College. I knew the school used to be all white and all male and I knew there had been a tremendous civil rights struggle to desegregate Girard College. Only nine years separated the first graduation of an African American student, Charles Hicks in 1974, and my enrollment at Girard in 1983. I always knew there were hard feelings about the school in some Philadelphia neighborhoods and among some of the alumni because in a period of about twenty years it went from an all-white school to majority African American—and in 1984 girls enrolled first time.
Socrates tells us to “know thyself” and in better trying to understand myself and where I came from, I watched the 2015 short film about the effort to desegregate Girard College, Cecil’s People: the Freedom Fighters (https://www.historymakingproductions.com/cecils-people). A frequent contemporary mistake is to think that racism is a Southern problem, but this is the story of the desegregation of a Philadelphia institution. If one imagines an elite boarding school campus free to white male orphans (and white male children of single parents), surrounded by a ten-foot wall in the middle of a black neighborhood, that’s Girard College up until 1968. Cecil’s People brought home to me the courage of those in the civil rights movement and that a sustained effort was required for actual change. The film, along with the recent death of Congressman Elijah Cummings and former US Senator Harris Wofford, reminded me that the heroes of the civil rights movement are passing from the scene and with them their experiences and wisdom.
Girard College opened in 1848 fulfilling the vision of the merchant/banker Stephen Girard who left two million dollars, the largest gift in American history at the time, for the creation of the school for fatherless boys, specifically “poor, white, orphan males.” Girard was certainly a hero in managing hospitals in Philadelphia during the yellow fever epidemic of 1793 and helping to finance the War of 1812. He gave the vast majority of his fortune to the City of Philadelphia and charities in that city. So it doesn’t surprise that the boys who were saved by “Mr. Girard’s money” venerated him as a great equalizer who believed in “greatness for all.” But the film nicely shows that it was the work of Cecil B. Moore and his band of Freedom Fighters who really expanded that greatness for all.
Cecil B. Moore was the President of the Philadelphia chapter of the NACCP, but it was not the usual story of the NACCP trying to advance the ball simply through lawsuits. Moore understood the pressure system, Moore saw that it was not enough to draw attention to a problem but that there was a need to agitate, to shock the conscience. Watching the film, one gets the sense that he never stopped being the Marine who fought in WW2, always advancing never retreating. The young protestors who fought with Moore recall what he meant to them and the risks they took in standing with him against a police force and school administration desperate to maintain the status quo. This campaign to desegregate Girard College was a non-stop, seven month and seventeen day effort, day and night.
As part of the national civil rights effort, Martin Luther King Jr. protested outside of the walls of Girard College delivering a speech that brought home the inconsistencies of America’s cold war efforts as a nation under God against the Soviet Union while not addressing our own limitations on liberty. King said, “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.” The film nicely brings out the subtle differences and complexities among those in the civil rights movement contrasting Moore’s militancy with King’s nonviolence. Today because of these protests, Girard College is one of the key staging areas for the effort to make Martin Luther King Day, a day of national service.
More than anything, the film reminded me of some things Lincoln said about the difficulties of instilling patriotism in his “Speech on the Perpetuation of Our Political Institutions.” Lincoln, has all the problems of 19th century politicians on race, but he knew something about civic attachment. In that speech, Lincoln speaks of the need to replenish the principles of the American Revolution because there will no longer be people around who fought in that cause. Lincoln says, “a living history was to be found in every family– a history bearing the indubitable testimonies of its own authenticity, in the limbs mangled, in the scars of wounds received, in the midst of the very scenes related–a history, too, that could be read and understood alike by all, the wise and the ignorant, the learned and the unlearned.–But those histories are gone. They can be read no more forever. They were a fortress of strength; but, what invading foeman could never do, the silent artillery of time has done; the leveling of its walls. They are gone.”
If nothing else, Cecil’s People captures the principles, spirit, and songs of Freedom Fighters in one civil rights battle in one place before we lose them. It should be the case that every Philadelphian would know the name of Marie Hicks who fought for her children to get into Girard or why there’s a street called Cecil B. Moore Avenue, but they do not.
Rudy Hernandez is a Post-Doctoral Fellow in American Political Thought at the Kinder Institute on Constitutional Democracy at the University of Missouri, and a Girard College graduate (Class of 1993).