Phila. activist recalls days working with King, Moore

Mel Dorn was among a group of young activists in the 1960s working with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Cecil B. Moore in protests against segregation at the North Philadelphia school.
Mel Dorn was among a group of young activists in the 1960s working with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Cecil B. Moore in protests against segregation at the North Philadelphia school. (ELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer)
Posted: January 21, 2014

PHILADELPHIA Nearly 50 years ago, Mel Dorn, then a young civil rights activist, worked closely with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Cecil B. Moore in protests against segregation at Girard College.

On Monday, Dorn will be a volunteer in the 19th annual Greater Philadelphia Martin Luther King Day of Service at the North Philadelphia private school he worked to see integrated.

Dorn, 69, who has held a variety of jobs and who currently works as a concert promoter, will be among hundreds of volunteers at Girard College, site of the Day of Service signature project.

Among the volunteers will be Mayor Nutter, who will help assemble, sort, and pack donated school supplies and schoolbooks.

Girard College, opened in 1848, was founded by Stephen Girard, a banker and merchant who became the wealthiest man in the country. He specified in his will that a school be established to aid needy children in Philadelphia. The will limited admission to white male orphans.

The school, on a 43-acre campus surrounded by high stone walls, remained for white boys only for more than a century. The policy of segregation triggered protests in 1965, including a speech by King outside those walls.

A 14-year legal battle concluded in 1968 as the U.S. Supreme Court let stand a lower-court ruling allowing black boys to attend. Four black boys enrolled that year. In the 1980s, girls were admitted.

Dorn was among a group of young activists in the 1960s, who came to be known as the "Cecil B. Moore Philadelphia Freedom Fighters." The group included Ken "Freedom Smitty" Salaam, Bernice Mills-DeVaugn, Richard Watson, Karen Asper-Jordan, and Eugene "Tree" Dawkins, who were active in the protests.

A longtime resident of North Philadelphia, Dorn shared memories last week of working with King and Moore in the 1960s. Dorn said he was a young husband and father who grew up in tough parts of North Philadelphia.

"When I got involved with Dr. King, I was like, 'If anybody messes with me, I'll knock them out.' I'm from North Philly," Dorn said.

"When I met Cecil B. Moore, he showed me a different strategy of how to deal with things," Dorn said. "We're talking about civil rights, human rights, picketing and going to jail. We were nonviolent, but Cecil would tell you, 'If anybody hits you, knock their ass out.' "

Dorn worked at the Philadelphia Christian Leadership Conference at 21st and Diamond Streets and often drove King to venues around the city. He recalled the towering leader of the civil rights movement as a "regular guy."

"He was such a low-key type of individual," Dorn said. Being a national historical figure "was the last thing he wanted people to remember him for. He really wanted people to know he was humble."

Dorn said he remembered King saying, "I'm a servant. And if I work harder, I will be a bigger servant. I'm not anyone's leader. And I never chose to be a leader."

Dorn said Georgie Woods, the noted disc jockey and civil rights activist, introduced him to King.

"He was a guy who cracked jokes and stuff," Dorn said of King. "Everybody who knew him personally called him 'Doc.' He got along with everybody. Everybody loved the guy. He was just a regular guy."

Girard College will be the site of a variety of activities from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. It will host a Civic Engagement Expo, in which participants will learn about the work of dozens of community organizations, and a Jobs and Opportunity Fair with about 20 local employers. The job fair requires advance registration.

In the day's closing event, the Philadelphia Orchestra will perform its free 24th annual Martin Luther King Jr. Tribute Concert at the school chapel at 1:30 p.m.

Other activities are scheduled throughout Philadelphia and the surrounding counties in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware.

For information about Day of Service activities in the region or to volunteer for a project, go to www.allforgood.org. For other information, go to www.inquirer.com/mlkevents or www.mlkdayofservice.org or call Global Citizen at 215-851-1811.


vclark@phillynews.com

215-854-5717

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