Girard College's Historical Connection to Martin Luther King, Jr.

Jan 13, 2017

The Greater Philadelphia Martin Luther King Day of Service is the largest event of its kind in the country.  Volunteers spread out across the region to perform all kinds of service projects. Thousands converge on the campus of Girard College for a full slate of activities, including a job fair. 

Martin Luther King Jr. in August 1965 addressing a crowd outside of Girard College.
Credit TEMPLE UNIVERSITY LIBRARIES

The Philadelphia Orchestra commemorates the day with a free tribute concert, and for the last four years, the Orchestra has performed in the fully packed chapel at Girard College. Listen to the concert LIVE on WRTI! Monday, January 16 at 1:30 pm. Gregg Whiteside is your host.

Girard College President Clarence Armbrister says there’s a good reason Girard has become a hub of the community-wide event.

Radio script:

In September, 1968, the first four African-American students were enrolled in Girard College.

Meridee Duddleston: A photo in the office of Girard College President Clarence Armbrister tells a story.  It was taken in 1968, three years after Martin Luther King stood outside the ornate gates of Girard. King came north to reinforce the call led by Cecil B. Moore and other local civil rights leaders for racial integration of a school founded before the Civil War for white male orphans to succeed through education.

Clarence Armbrister:  He came here to support the freedom fighters who began the protests around the school.  They had committed to walking around the school and Martin Luther King came here and he made a statement – much in the biblical sense – that the walls of Girard would come down like the walls of Jericho.

MD:  The picture in Armbrister’s office captures the September day when four African-American male students walked side-by-side through those massive gates for the very first time. Armbrister finds King’s vision of the life-changing potential of equality directly linked to the founder’s belief in the power of education.

CA:  When you combine that with this incredible act of philanthropy that our founder Stephen Girard made in 1831 – the intersection of those stories is really an important point. I can’t think of a better place for that to have lived out in the Martin Luther King Day of Service than at Girard College.

MD: Coed since the ‘80s, Girard serves as a hub on the MLK Day of Service.  The day culminates with a concert in its huge chapel where The Philadelphia Orchestra performs, the Philadelphia High School for Creative and Performing Arts (CAPA) choir sings, and the words of Dr. King’s “I have a Dream” speech resonate above Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings.  

Protesters marching outside of the fortress-like walls surrounding Girard College in 1965.