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The fight for civil rights in Philadelphia began in the 18th century and continues to this day. From the push to abolish slavery through efforts to desegregate public spaces, gain access to residential and work opportunities, and compete for public office, to today’s Black Lives Matter demonstrations, Philadelphia has been a flash point for civil rights advocacy and activism.


Previously denied an integrated worship experience, Richard Allen (1760-1831) founded Mother Bethel Church and later the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the first black independent denomination in America. Formerly enslaved and later made a Bishop, Allen advocated for slavery’s abolition.

Octavius V. Catto (1839-1871) was an educator who, along with Frederick Douglass, recruited soldiers to fight for the Union. After the war, he was murdered at Ninth and South Streets by an Irish immigrant who wanted to stop him from voting. Catto’s activism and the public outcry against his martyrdom helped secure passage of the U.S. Civil Rights Act of 1875.


By 1919, Philadelphia’s black population rose to nearly ten percent of the city’s population. The NAACP and other organizations continued to push for work equality and access to housing, but were met with backlash and brutal race riots. Throughout the 1930s and into the Second World War, black Philadelphians saw record numbers of unemployment, housing discrimination through redlining, and workforce segregation. As America fought racist fascism abroad, bigotry and hate stewed in the city of brotherly love.

Despite federal and state civil rights measures and local regulations, the loss of industrial jobs in the late 1940s and 1950s as well as discriminatory lending practices kept Philadelphia’s black population effectively segregated and poor. The 1960s saw the rise of dynamic leaders following in the footsteps of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. including Cecil B. Moore and the Rev. Leon Sullivan. Yet the pushback against equal rights continued to be severe. Tensions reached a boiling point with the 1964 race riots and subsequent allegations of police brutality. In reaction to the unrest, police commissioner Frank Rizzo was elected mayor in 1971. His controversial administration was accused of racism and police brutality. Factions of the Civil Rights movement began to radicalize.


As more African Americans gained public office in Philadelphia and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, their background in activism helped move civil rights forward. But work remains to be done in the city of brotherly love that is still marred by racism, bigotry, and prejudice and the dark side of the human condition. Faith, hope, and love can overcome.

I want to see the militant spirit of the civil rights movement channeled into learning and productivity. The movement has broken down the doors; now we must prepare people to go through.

The Rev. Leon Sullivan


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