Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia

Martin Luther King Jr. Day

Philadelphia has had a greater influence on Martin Luther King Jr. holiday traditions than any city other than King’s birthplace, Atlanta. Observed on the third Monday in January since 1986, the federal holiday commemorates King (1929-68) and his civil rights activism. Ceremonies at the Liberty Bell and a focus on community service are among Philadelphia’s contributions to the annual observance.

A black and white photo of NAACP leader Cecil B. Moore and Martin Luther King, Jr. holding hand together at a press conference

Martin Luther King and local NAACP leader Cecil B. Moore worked together in August 1965 on the desegregation protests at Girard College. Moore was initially skeptical of King’s nonviolent approach to civil rights and discouraged him from joining the Girard protests. (Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries)

Interest in honoring King’s legacy grew after his 1968 assassination, and annual observances of his date of birth (January 15) began in Atlanta and elsewhere. Pennsylvania Governor Milton J. Shapp (1912-94) signed a state King Holiday into law in 1978, and New Jersey declared a state holiday the same year. Delaware Governor Pierre Samuel Du Pont (b.1935) designated a state holiday in 1984. Public pressure also persuaded Congress to pass federal King holiday legislation, which President Ronald Reagan (1911-2004) signed on November 2, 1983. Commemorating King’s birthday as a federal holiday beginning in 1986, the day was dedicated to reflecting on “racial equality and nonviolent social change.” Intended for all Americans, not only African Americans, King Day nonetheless fulfilled a long held desire for a national black holiday.

Philadelphia’s role in the observance grew after the first holiday, which was criticized by civil rights activists as superficial and overly reliant on King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Seeking to make the day more substantial, the King Federal Holiday Commission chaired by King’s widow Coretta Scott King (1927-2006) looked to Philadelphia for inspiration and used the bicentennial of the U.S. Constitution to invoke King’s legacy. The Liberty Bell, with its associations to independence and abolition, became a holiday icon; ringing the bell, and replicas in every state, became a tradition from 1987. Some who gently tapped the bell in Philadelphia included Rosa Parks (1988), Benjamin Hooks of the NAACP (1989), James Farmer of the Congress of Racial Equality (1990), Dorothy Height of the National Council of Negro Women (1992), Vice President Albert Gore (1995), and General Colin Powell (1996). King himself had laid a wreath at the bell in 1959 on National Freedom Day to commemorate the Thirteenth Amendment.

Day of Tribute—and Protest

On King Day, traditions in the Philadelphia region have included ecumenical prayer services, songs, speeches, and acts of community service. Banks, public schools, and state and federal agencies close. The holiday has also been used to protest social and political conditions. Over the years, Congressman William H. Gray III (1941-2013) denounced apartheid in South Africa, the Philadelphia-Delaware Valley Union of the Homeless claimed an abandoned house in Southwest Philadelphia, and sanitation workers demonstrated against their employment conditions. C. Delores Tucker (1927-2005), president of the Philadelphia MLK Association for Nonviolence, also led a protest outside Tower Records to condemn misogynist lyrics in rap music.

A color photograph of a small crowd gathered at the Liberty Bell

The Liberty Bell is ceremonially tapped each year on the King Holiday by a chosen member of the civil rights community. This ritual was first requested by King’s widow Coretta Scott King in 1986. (Independence National Historical Park via the National Park Service)

Philadelphia again influenced the national holiday in 1994 when U.S. Senator Harris Wofford (b. 1926) of Pennsylvania persuaded Congress to convert the holiday to a day of community service. Wofford had worked as a civil rights adviser to President John F. Kennedy and led the Peace Corps, an inspiration for the service initiative. Wofford highlighted Philadelphia’s existing community service events and with Coretta Scott King’s support he and Congressman John Lewis (b. 1940), a civil rights movement veteran, sought to transform the day into an “active living tribute” to King. They wanted “to remember Martin the way he would have liked” with “action, not apathy.” On August 23, 1994, President Bill Clinton (b. 1946) signed the King Holiday and Service Act, establishing the day of service.

In Greater Philadelphia, service activities on Martin Luther King Day have been centered at Girard College, where King spoke before 5,000 at an integration rally in 1965. Activities have been coordinated by MLK 365, a project of the Philadelphia-based nonprofit organization Global Citizen. MLK 365 seeks to promote volunteerism not only on the holiday, but year-round, and hosts discussions on race, class and power.

Martin Luther King, Jr. Day continues to draw large crowds of demonstrators to City Hall, as shown by this 2015 photograph. (Photograph by Donald D. Groff for the Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia)

Besides being a day of service projects, Martin Luther King Jr. Day also has become a day of rights demonstrations. These demonstrators were approaching City Hall during a march in 2015. (Photograph by Donald D. Groff for the Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia)

The 2015 King holiday in Philadelphia encompassed protest as well as commemoration. A large rally marching up Broad Street to City Hall and on to Independence Hall marked Martin Luther King Day as a “Day of Action, Resistance, and Empowerment” against economic inequality and police brutality. Following several high profile deaths of black men in other cities at the hands of police, this protest attempted to reclaim King’s activism and pointed to a potentially contentious future for the holiday as a new generation of King legatees sought to protest as well as to serve.

Daniel Thomas Fleming is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of History at the University of Newcastle, Australia. He is the author of “Remembering Martin Luther King Jr.” in Agora, Vol 46, No 1, 2011 and “Marvin Gaye, Martin Luther King and the FBI” in Traffic, Vol 9, 2007. He has presented his research at conferences of the Organization of American Historians and the Association for the Study of African American Life and History.


Copyright 2105, Rutgers University

Related Reading

Chappell, David L. Waking From the Dream. New York, Random House, 2014.

Dyson, Michael. I May Not Get There With You: The True Martin Luther King, Jr. New York: Touchstone, 2000.

Nash, Gary B. The Liberty Bell. New Haven, Yale University Press, 2010.

Wiggins, Jr. William H. O Freedom! Afro-American Emancipation Celebrations. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1987.

Wofford, Harris. Of Kennedys and Kings: Making Sense of the Sixties. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1992.

Collections

Martin Luther King Jr. Federal Holiday Commission Records, National Archives and Records Administration, Morrow, Georgia.

Martin Luther King Jr. Papers Project, Research and Education Institute, Stanford University.

Places to Visit

Liberty Bell Center, Sixth and Chestnut Streets, Philadelphia.

Girard College, 2101 S. College Avenue, Philadelphia.

One Comment Comments

  1. I am a Caucasian American born in 1961, who, growing up in the South during the era of civil rights activism and national television coverage, witnessed public segregation even at the doctor’s office. As an unprejudiced child I was confused by the inequalities (something I experienced first hand in education during school bussing with outdated schoolbook and dilapidated school buildings.) I was encouraged by civil rights legislation and equally disturbed by the murders, assassinations and subsequent race riots. Like so many others I came to rely on a higher power while the greater society grew increasingly indifferent to inequities and grossly disobedient to the rule of law (something we readily excuse as American individualism.)
    We can be free AND compassionate. It saddens me to witness continuing indifference to the plight of others, an attitude we collectively, but ephemerally, suspended at the advent of 9/11, only to revert back to shortly thereafter. Will we never spiritually embrace our neighbor fully? I have seen Martin Luther King Jr. Day as a day of service but now more than ever it needs to return to its roots of reform and reconciliation. Let us not “whitewash” the Observance until it no longer recognizes racial injustice. Doctor King would be disappointed in our failure to love one another. Continue to serve but do so in the spirit of love and concern being aware there are still enormous divides in our society that need to be bridged if we ever hope to fully realize King’s vision and fulfill the promise of our great nation to ourselves and others.

    Larry Chambers Posted January 17, 2016 at 4:37 pm

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