Martin Luther King Jr. was coming to town and Cecil Moore was not happy. Since May of 1965, Moore had led demonstrations at Girard College, which only accepted white orphan boys as mandated by the will of its founder, banker Stephen Girard.
By the 1960s, the school sat in black working-class North Philadelphia, surrounded by stone walls 10 feet high and 14 inches thick. When the demonstrations started, Deputy Police Commissioner Frank Rizzo laughed them off, saying they’d last three or four days. By August 1965, they were in their fourth month, draining city resources. Hundreds of police officers were deployed, 24 hours a day, during the protests. The action garnered national headlines and caught the attention of Martin Luther King Jr., the nation’s preeminent civil rights leader. He wanted to help.
The Girard siege was led by the peripatetic Moore with military precision. He marched, bullhorn in hand, with his picketers, mostly young teenagers aptly named The Philadelphia Freedom Fighters. As they marched, they sang the iconic civil rights anthem “We Shall Overcome,” but with a twist: “We Shall Overrun.”
Moore knew military precision from the war. He had been one of the original Montford Point Marines, the first African Americans to serve in the U.S. Marine Corps, in 1941. Fighting in the Pacific, Moore rose to the rank of sergeant. Upon his honorable discharge he said, “After nine years in the Marine Corps, I don’t intend to take another order from any son of a bitch that walks.” And he didn’t.
Moving to Philadelphia in 1947, he attended Temple Law part-time, supporting himself as a liquor salesman. He went on to build a successful criminal defense practice while getting his feet wet advocating for civil rights. Moore saw Philadelphia as “behind the mark” on civil rights, ruled by a black elite that was happy to get the spoils of jobs and other crumbs from the white power structure while the masses were shut out of decent jobs and housing. Moore decided to do something about it.
Taking strategies out of the playbook of Congressman Adam Clayton Powell Jr., Moore’s friend and idol, he started using picket lines to protest and boycott establishments that would not hire blacks. He was successful and was encouraged to run for president of the local NAACP chapter in 1962. It wasn’t easy. Moore was brash, confrontational and hard-drinking. Rumors swirled of his womanizing. When he won, he vowed to never be part of the black Philadelphia elite that sold out the common man.
Moore grew the chapter from 400 to more than 7,000 members. He picketed the travel bus industry, insisting they hire black drivers. He went after construction and building trades that were building a public school in North Philadelphia with federal funds but not hiring blacks. Moore took on the Mummers and their use of blackface, with the city banning the practice only after Moore threatened to violently attack the black facers. These and other tactics endeared Moore to the city’s black population and he won the grudging respect of his enemies.
After being reelected, he decided to take on Girard College. It wouldn’t be the first time. A lawsuit in the 1950s had led to the U.S. Supreme Court striking down the school’s ban against blacks but the city got around the order by changing the institution from a public trust to a private school.
In 1965, Moore didn’t have the resources for another legal challenge. But a picket at the college, he thought, would bring much-needed attention and eventually a benefactor who would bring the resources they needed.
The picket line started on May 1, 1965, with a motley crew of young activists, middle-class blacks and sympathetic whites. Moore initially had threatened to storm and go over the wall, prompting fears of violence and bloodshed and causing Rizzo to deploy the police in force. A parade of local and national dignitaries came to speak, but once it was on Dr. King’s radar it had the potential to reach a whole new level.
Just before the press conference, King and Moore had a chance for some alone time together. It is not known what was specifically said between the two, but observers said Moore’s opinion of King changed on that very day.
Moore heard about King’s impending visit from a local reporter and he was visibly upset. He saw it as an attempt for King to grab headlines and take credit for all of the work Moore had done.
Hostility toward King among other black leaders was not uncommon in 1965. Many felt their work was overshadowed by King, who rose to national prominence with his leadership of the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1956 and then gained worldwide fame at the 1963 March On Washington. He was Lyndon Johnson’s go-to person on the passing of the historic Civil Rights Act Of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965, which transformed America. Moore and other leaders were right that they didn’t always get as much credit as King, but there was considerable envy involved too.
Moore complained openly in the press about King’s impending visit. He called it a “plot to divide Negroes” and said King was a “divisive figure.” The longtime Marine despised King’s philosophy of nonviolence and fed into the unsubstantiated rumors that communists and gays had a hold on King.
Two Philadelphians set out to change Moore’s mind about King, the Rev. Leon Sullivan, a prominent preacher and activist, and Bob Kline, the pioneering general manager of WHAT radio who had given Moore his own show and privately rescued him from some financial troubles. Moore wasn’t an easy sell. But the two men told him how much Philadelphians wanted to see King, and how it would be good overall for the Girard integration movement. Moore finally agreed, amid rumors that the local NAACP would receive a donation from King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
King was scheduled to join the protest line and address supporters on Aug. 2, after a press conference at the Bellevue-Stratford in Center City.
Just before the press conference, King and Moore had a chance for some alone time together. It is not known what was specifically said between the two, but observers said Moore’s opinion of King changed on that very day. In 1965, King was a weary man living under the daily threat of assassination. James Earl Ray would ultimately succeed in killing him just three years later.
But the two civil rights leaders had much in common. King had two young daughters and two young sons. Moore had four young daughters. The weight of the world was on both of these men. In those brief intimate moments they shared, the two men probably recognized the humanity in each other. They were both fighting in the same war, for the same cause, on the same side.
These sentiments were reflected in King’s remarks at Girard College:
“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. This school is symbolic of a tragic evil in our nation. We should all thank this man, Cecil B. Moore, who as a soldier of justice and a warrior of equality is leading the effort to remove this cancer from our country.”
Three years later, the walls of segregation finally fell at Girard College.
Tigre Hill is a filmmaker who produced and directed the documentaries “The Shame Of A City,” “The Barrel Of A Gun” and the upcoming “The Corrupt And The Dead-Tales Of The Philly Underworld.” He also has written the screenplay for “American Zealot,” which is the basis for the limited series he is developing about the life and times Of Cecil B. Moore. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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