Annette John-Hall: Dr. King's contribution at Girard College

Interim president Clay Armbrister at Girard, long desegregated.
Interim president Clay Armbrister at Girard, long desegregated. (APRIL SAUL / Staff Photographer)
Posted: January 12, 2013

Despite his lifelong quest for integration, justice, and equality, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once said life's "most urgent and persistent question is, what are you doing for others?"

Service was indeed the hallmark of Dr. King's abbreviated life. I was reminded of that the other day at Girard College.

Volunteers will gather Jan. 21 at Girard to join in 1,500 community-service projects for the 18th annual Martin Luther King Day of Service. An expected 110,000 volunteers, in fact, which would be a national record for any volunteer effort connected with Martin Luther King's Birthday. Global Citizen's Todd Bernstein has worked tirelessly over the last 18 years to make Philadelphia the signature city for the largest such event in the nation.

Dr. King would have been proud of Philly's drum majors for service. But even as I admired the Greek Revival architecture in storied Founder's Hall, I couldn't help wondering what he would think of a service day in his name at Girard, a school he once chastised.

That moment came during a pivotal point in the civil-rights struggle, all the more important because Girard's is a Northern civil-rights story - not to mention a Philadelphia story.

A certain photo has pride of place in Clay Armbrister's office at Girard. It's a 1965 shot of Dr. King addressing protesters outside Girard's massive iron gates.

"I had no idea that Martin Luther King had even been here," marveled Armbrister, the former chief of staff to Mayor Nutter who took over last year as Girard's interim president. "It struck me that, my goodness, this place really is special. Extraordinary men came here to correct an injustice."

That injustice would be segregation, aided and abetted by Stephen Girard, the enormously wealthy merchant, banker, and philanthropist who is the school's namesake.

The French immigrant, who died in 1831, clearly loved his adopted city. He left the principal part of his fortune to Philadelphia, to enhance "the prosperity of the city, and the health and comfort of its inhabitants."

But while Girard did "for others," he did for only certain others.

As part of his gift to the city, Girard stipulated that a free boarding school be established for "poor, white, male orphans." And that's what happened.

But as the civil-rights era dawned, the city mounted numerous legal challenges to desegregate Girard College - to no avail.

In 1965, Cecil B. Moore turned up the heat. The NAACP president organized a seven-month protest that drew around-the-clock pickets to the 43-acre campus - including Dr. King.

In August of that year, Dr. King addressed thousands of those protesters outside the institution's stone perimeter: "The walls of Girard College will tumble like the walls of Jericho!"

Three years later, the U.S. Supreme Court let stand a lower-court ruling that allowed black boys to attend Girard. Today, it offers free boarding and tuition to 400 girls and boys ages 6 to 18. (Girls were admitted by 1984.)

It gives Armbrister pause to consider how far Girard College has come in fewer than 50 years. Here he is, a black man, running a school he would not have been able to attend when he was young.

"I don't know what Stephen Girard would be thinking right now," says Armbrister. He forgives Girard as being a product of his time. "But," he adds, "Martin Luther King would be proud in terms of his work."

On second thought, I can't think of a better place to celebrate a day of service in Dr. King's honor than Girard College.

Contact Annette John-Hall at 215-854-4986

or or follow

on Twitter @Annettejh.

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