This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Friday, Nov. 17, will mark the 50th anniversary of the walkout of thousands of African American students in Philadelphia who wanted schools to include African American history and culture in their curricula. On Thursday and Friday, City Councilwoman Helen Gym will host a series of events celebrating that pivotal moment in the city’s history.
“Youth have been and continue to be a driving force in the movement for racial justice and educational equity in Philadelphia,” said Gym in an emailed statement. “We are excited to celebrate the legacy of the 1967 Black student walkout by heralding our elders and supporting our current youth activists. During dark times, youth leaders break open possibilities and provide energy and hope — this event is about honoring their leadership past and present.”
On Thursday morning, City Council will kick off the festivities at 10 a.m. by honoring the 50-year legacy of the activists. On Friday, a panel discussion at the African American Museum in Philadelphia will feature Gym; Matthew Countryman, author of Up South: Civil Rights and Black Power in Philadelphia, which includes a comprehensive account of the day; and local community activists. The keynote address and panel, which are free, will run from 6 to 8 p.m. A reception that follows from 8 to 11 p.m. will cost $10.
The commemoration will come to a close on Saturday with a teach-in hosted by Ismael Jimenez, an African American Studies teacher at Kensington Creative & Performing Arts High School. Jimenez, who is a coordinator of the Caucus of Working Educators, said the teach-in would be a discussion between student activists who participated in the 1967 walkout and activist students of today about the historic protest and how it relates to the present day. This will take place between 1 and 4 p.m. at Martin Luther King High School.
Dana King, who, as African American Curriculum Specialist for the District, helped create the curriculum for African American Studies in Philadelphia schools, will also be an invited guest.
“We’re talking about how students, along with educators in the city, worked together to bring attention to the fact that they were being mis-educated,” Jimenez said.
He said the students then were pleading for “courses that speak to their own concepts, so they can actually figure out the situation and circumstances they found themselves in 50 years ago, which a lot of those situations and circumstances still exist today.”
The 1967 protest is a flashpoint in Philadelphia history, a pivotal moment in the city’s fraught record on race relations.
On Nov. 17, 3,500 students, mostly African American, left their schools and walked to Board of Education headquarters at 21st Street and Benjamin Franklin Parkway. The walkout was peaceful, and hundreds of students milled around the building and its courtyard while a small delegation met inside with Superintendent Mark Shedd to press their demands.
They wanted more African American history courses and faculty members and more representation on the Board of Education.
But the fear of violence grew – apparently, a few students stood on cars – and the police were called.
Stories about what transpired after that are conflicting. The police said the protest was violent, while the Board of Ed and the students maintained that it was mostly peaceful. Nevertheless, two busloads of police officers showed up, under then-Police Commissioner Frank Rizzo, and things turned bloody. Former School District spokesman William Jones frequently recounted his horror at looking out the superintendent’s office window and seeing cowering students being beaten by police with nightsticks.
According to witnesses, Rizzo incited violence by his officers and commanded them to “get their black asses!”
Twenty-two people were seriously injured and 57 people were arrested.
After the chaotic events, Shedd and District administrators were empathetic to the students’ demands and met with them and community members to negotiate. But before any significant curriculum could be created or District policy changes could be made, fierce political opposition developed and the momentum started by the walkout was slowed.
Numerous grassroots and community organizations and learning centers were created, but Districtwide change didn’t occur until 2005, when Philadelphia became the first big city in the United States to make African American History a required course for graduation.
With the expected dissolution of the School Reform Commission, a move to return Philadelphia schools to local control, and the recent announcement that the statue of Rizzo will be moved from its spot in front of the Municipal Services Building, the anniversary is timely.
Jimenez said these important events are indicators that the city is leaning toward a new identity, but whether true progress will be made remains unclear. Dialogues like those of the 1967 protest and the celebration honoring it are a good start to make sure Philadelphia is moving in the right direction, he said.
“When we have these intergenerational conversations, that’s where those ideas, that’s where those relationships, that’s where those goals get identified and eventually, hopefully, implemented and accomplished.”