Honoring the struggle for civil rights in Philadelphia

Viewing photos in the "Civil Rights in Philadelphia" exhibit are Mark Segal (front), founder of Philadelphia Gay News, and Joan McConnen of Project HOME, who are both pictured in it.
Viewing photos in the "Civil Rights in Philadelphia" exhibit are Mark Segal (front), founder of Philadelphia Gay News, and Joan McConnen of Project HOME, who are both pictured in it. (CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer)
Posted: July 04, 2014

Though a history book might say otherwise, the fight for civil rights began as early as the 1700s - at least in Philadelphia.

In 1701, William Penn signed the Charter of Privileges, giving Pennsylvanians freedom of religion. And so it began.

For years, Americans - and, specifically, Philadelphians - have been fighting for (and over) equality in all fields, from the right to practice any faith, to women's having the right to vote, to ending segregation in schools.

A new photo exhibit celebrating parts of that ongoing battle opened Wednesday at Philadelphia International Airport. The show is titled "Civil Rights in Philadelphia: 50th Anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964." President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the act into law 50 years earlier to the day, July 2, 1964.

"It's beyond what we think of as civil rights," said Leah Douglas, the airport's director of exhibitions.

The exhibit, part of the Wawa Welcome America! celebrations, features 55 black and white photographs, and will be on display for one year.

The 50th anniversary of the act made it an obvious choice for the exhibit, Douglas said. She  said her goal was to make the exhibit as inclusive as possible. Her curation, which took six months, features fights for different religions, ethnicities, and sexual orientations.

Mark Gale, the airport's CEO, said the exhibit, in Terminal A, is "one of our most important ever."

On Wednesday morning, a few travelers stopped to look and ask what was going on.

Mayor Nutter, who attended the unveiling and is featured in the exhibit for signing legislation expanding LGBT rights, said the people featured in it all worked toward a "more perfect union."

But the union is not yet perfect, Nutter added. People are fighting as near as Harrisburg to ensure Philadelphia's youths get a quality education, he said.

Several of the activists featured in the exhibit attended the unveiling.

One was Mark Segal, an LGBT activist who was pictured holding the Philadelphia Gay News, which he founded.

Segal crouched beside his photo, listening to audio of himself that was included in the exhibit.

"You see this, you know you're old," Segal joked.

Though Segal had hoped the exhibit would feature a photograph of his getting arrested when he chained himself to the Liberty Bell, he said he was honored to be included and to see LGBT activism in the mix.

"It shows how Philadelphia has become a beacon for LGBT equality," he said.

As evidence, Segal cited the legislation Nutter signed in 2013, which he said is stronger than legislation in any other city.

Relatives of Clarence Farmer, longtime chairman of the Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations and member of the Philadelphia Police Advisory Board, also attended. Farmer's niece Carolyn Nichols, a Common Pleas Court judge, said he was always "heading into the action," a phrase he liked to say. He died in January.

After the unveiling, Nutter snapped a photo with fellow honoree Wei Chen, who in 2009 led a boycott against South Philadelphia High School protesting the treatment of Asian American students.

Chen said he was honored to have his nonviolent activism, inspired by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., included in the exhibit. He said Asian American stories do not often make it into the conversation.

Though many activists featured in the exhibit fought for different rights, they all worked toward the goal of "honoring human dignity," said Joan McConnon, a cofounder of Project HOME, which serves the city's homeless.

Fellow cofounder Sister Mary Scullion said the freedoms many Americans experience don't come easily. As the photographs on the walls of Terminal A demonstrate, they take a lot of work.

"Especially on July Fourth," Scullion said, "it's important to remember that freedom isn't free."

 


CFabris@phillynews.com

215-854-5607 @CaseyFabris

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