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Philadelphian African American students campaign for greater rights, 1967
Cecil B. Moore, the prominent African American civil rights activist and criminal defense attorney, ran for mayor of Philadelphia in 1967. As part of his campaign, Moore supported the demands of Philadelphia's African American students and parents who called for changes to school district policy. These changes included new courses in African American history and the allowance of African American students to wear traditional African clothing in school. Further demands included the hiring of additional African American teachers and principals and an increased African American presence on the Board of Education. Some African American students in the Philadelphia public school system had been refusing to say the pledge of allegiance or salute the United States flag because they believed "liberty and justice" did not exist for all. Students demanded that they not be disciplined for this refusal.
Mark Shedd, the newly appointed District Superintendent, was sympathetic to these demands and as the 1967-68 school year got underway, Shedd allowed Moore's mayoral campaign to enter public high schools to garner the support of the students. The mayoral campaign's presence in the public schools galvanized the students. Campaign workers convinced the students that they should call on the District to begin offering courses in Swahili and should allow students to wear dashikis and tiger-teeth necklaces in school. African American students formed organizations, such as the Black Students Association, to pressure the district and the city to listen to their demands.
Moore lost considerably in the November election and was defeated by incumbent James Tate. Following his defeat, Moore joined Barry Dawson of the Revolutionary Action Movement (RAM) to continue advocating for the African American students' demands. Meanwhile, the Black Students Association began organizing in many of Philadelphia's public high schools. On Friday, November 10, 1967, between twelve and sixteen students held an all day demonstration in the music room of Bok Technical High School to express their support for demands that the school offer a course in African American history. School administrators threatened the students with expulsion.
On Thursday morning, November 16, African American community leaders stood outside of Philadelphia's primarily black high schools and encouraged students to attend the "Black student rally" at the Board of Education building the next day. The picketed high schools were South Philadelphia, William Penn, Gratz, Bartram, Bok, West Philadelphia, Benjamin Franklin, and Edison. The adult community leaders handed out leaflets and encouraged the students to boycott their schools until their demands were met. The adults also told the students that the rally was in response to the suspension of the Bok Technical High School students for holding the demonstration the week before. (It is unclear whether these students were actually suspended.)
The response by high school teachers and administrators to the planned rally was mixed. On Friday morning, at least three students at Saul Agricultural High School left school intending to participate in the demonstration downtown. The three students were followed by a school counselor in an automobile, who stopped the three and drove them back to the school. When they returned, all of the doors to the school were locked, in an effort to prevent other students from attending the demonstration. At William Penn High School, however, the principal announced over the loud speaker that anyone who wished to join the demonstration was free to do so and teachers complied.
Students from high schools across the city took public transportation or walked to the site of the rally. A march down Broad Street attracted the support of some younger students, who left school to join in. Students shouted "Black Power!" and "Black Studies!" as they marched towards the Board of Education Building at 21 St. and the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. Some teachers joined as well.
By 11:00 AM, more than 3,000 protesters had assembled at the Board of Education Building. Rally organizers instructed protesters to remain peaceful and to march around the building. Meanwhile, Superintendent Mark Shedd, who was sympathetic to the protesters, decided to meet with ten student representatives. Shedd asked Mattie Humphrey, a consultant to the Community Relations Service of the U.S. Justice Department acting as liaison to high school students, to select ten appropriate student representatives. Between ten and thirty students entered the Board of Education Building to meet with Shedd, Humphrey, and other district officials to discuss their demands. This meeting reportedly progressed favorably for the students and Shedd was willing to negotiate. As the meeting progressed, the demonstration outside grew even larger. Reports indicate that a total of 3,500 protesters had assembled peacefully.
A small number of African American community leaders were present for the demonstration. This group included Father Paul Washington of the Church of the Advocate, who, seeing that the demonstration was progressing peacefully, left the scene midmorning.
Expecting a large but peaceful demonstration, the Board of Education had asked the Philadelphia Police Department to refrain from sending uniformed officers to the scene. The two parties (the School District and the Police Department) had agreed that only the plain clothes Civil Disobedience Squad led by Lt. George Fencl would be present. The police department kept this promise only until noon when Fencl reportedly radioed for assistance. Shortly thereafter, around noontime, Police Commissioner Frank Rizzo arrived at the scene at noon with busloads of between 300 and 400 uniformed officers.
As the mass of protesters marched from the rear of the Board of Education building to the front, they encountered the newly arrived uniformed police officers, who were dressed in riot gear and assembled in riot formation. “They were standing like uniformed soldiers with helmets and sticks in their hands,” recalled Deborah W. Sawyer, who was a seventeen year-old junior at William Penn High School.
There are conflicting reports of what happened next. Local and national media outlets as well as the Philadelphia Police Department claimed that the demonstrators incited to riot. There is ample evidence, however, that suggests that the leaders of the demonstration endorsed nonviolence and called on all demonstrators to remain peaceful. Police reports indicate that the police attempted to arrest two demonstrators who had reportedly jumped atop a patrol car. Following this, police reports indicate that the protesters made threatening gestures toward the mass of officers. Both of these accounts have been questioned.
Commissioner Rizzo then ordered the uniformed officers to “get their black asses,” words that would sink deeply into the history of Philadelphia. The ensuing actions, again, were reported differently by different sources. The police and media claimed that the protesters were violent. The African American community and the Board of Education claimed that the police brutally attacked the peaceful demonstrators.
Mumia Abu-Jamal’s biographer, Terry Bisson, describes the police actions that followed: “Immediately an army of cops charged into the crowd, nightsticks swinging. Soon the streets were echoing with the nightmarish thwack of oak clubs on young skulls, and the gutters were spattered with blood. Girl? Boy? It didn’t matter to the men in blue. They were just kids, true. But they were black and they were outta line.”
It should be noted here that local and national newspaper reports gave a very different account of this encounter. The media claimed that the student protesters violently attacked police and bystanders. Media reports indicate that some students assaulted pedestrians. These reports, however, are unsubstantiated.
The meeting with Shedd, Humphrey, students and other Board of Education officials was cancelled shortly after the violence broke out. Shedd was reportedly eager to meet with students again to discuss their demands further, but the political climate in Philadelphia prevented subsequent meetings from occurring.
Following the encounter with the police, groups of African American students spread out across the city. Some vandalism was reported. One group assembled in the courtyard of City Hall, shouting “Black Power!” This group was met by police with submachine guns and dogs.
In total, the police arrested fifty-seven protesters at the November 17 demonstration. Among those arrested were 39 juveniles and 18 adults who were charged with breach of peace and inciting to riot. Other charges included disorderly conduct and resisting arrest. Fifteen protesters were hospitalized. Dozens more were injured, including five police officers.
Walter Palmer and Bill Mathis, two of the African American adult community leaders present for the demonstration, were arrested and charged with inciting to riot. Judge Raymond Pace Alexander, a prominent black judge in the city, significantly reduced the two men’s bail, saying, “The mere display of brute force with 300-400 armed police encircling youngsters – easily excited school children – will itself cause the explosion that occurred Friday afternoon.” Rev. D. Marshall Bevins, a white Episcopal priest, and Barry Dawson of the Revolutionary Action Network were also arrested.
A large number of white Philadelphians congratulated the Police Department on its actions. This sentiment, however, was by no means universal. Board of Education president and former Philadelphia Mayor Richardson Dilworth said of the incident, “That charge by the police triggered the violence. We did not ask for this large mass of police!” Writing in the Philadelphia Inquirer on November 21, 1967, Dilworth said, “a serious effort by the school administration to speak creatively to the major tension in our city was tragically destroyed by inept and precipitous police action.” Dilworth and Shedd were the only school district or city officials to attribute the violence to the police.
The following evening, Saturday, November 18, the students that had met with Mark Shedd the previous day gathered at the Church of the Advocate. They discussed next steps and composed a statement of purpose. Their demands were (as quoted in the Philadelphia the Inquirer on November 19, 1967):
- A call for more ‘Negro’ teachers and principals.
- A need for ‘black history’ to be taught as a major subject by black teachers.
- More ‘Negro’ representation on the School Board.
- Exempting all ‘Negroes’ from saluting the flag because liberty and justice did not exist at all.
The next day approximately 800 African American community leaders held a meeting in a West Philadelphia church and voted to boycott public schools in support of the students’ demands.
That Wednesday evening, November 22, over one thousand primarily white students, parents, and teachers held a three-hour rally outside of the Police Administration Building in downtown Philadelphia. The protest was in response to the police violence that had occurred the previous Friday. Protesters represented many Philadelphia public schools as well as five political action organizations, including Philadelphia Area Teachers for Peace, the Philadelphia Chapter of Students for a Democratic Society, Youth Against War and Fascism, and the South Philadelphia branch of the Consumers Education and Protection Association. Approximately six protesters addressed the crowd and all called for Commissioner Rizzo to be fired. They also called for better schools for African Americans. The Philadelphia branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People also called for Rizzo to resign.
Following up on the November 19 community meeting, during which African American community leaders voted to boycott public schools, some community members started “learning centers” to educate African American youth about their history. There is no evidence that there was a widespread boycott of public schools.
Two organizations were formed in the months after the November 17 demonstration. The primarily white People for Human Rights created an avenue for whites to work against racism and be allies to African Americans and the Black Power movement. The second group to form was Philadelphians for Equal Justice. This interracial group of community members banded together to protect black Philadelphians against police brutality and unlawful arrest.
As was mentioned earlier, School District Superintendent Mark Shedd and Board of Education President Richardson Dilworth were sympathetic to the African American students’ demands and were enthusiastic about further negotiations. These two men, however, faced a political climate in Philadelphia that did not share their views. Although Shedd promised that his meetings with African American student leaders would continue, there is no evidence that subsequent meetings took place or that major changes to school district policy or curriculum were implemented in that era. In November 1971, Frank Rizzo was elected mayor of Philadelphia and Mark Shedd was forced to resign.