A Most Exciting Discovery

On Monday, January 21, our nation observed and celebrated the life of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Hundreds of volumes have been written about the beloved icon of the American Civil Rights Movement, also known as MLK. His heavily analyzed and eventful life has been chronicled with a thoroughness that gives the impression there is little else we can know or see about this man who played such a vital role in changing the course of American history and the lives of millions throughout the world. But artifacts that chronicle significant events and people still remain in archives, libraries, and other cultural institutions, waiting to be rediscovered. Such was the case with a series of photos housed in Philadelphia City Archives.

On October 10, 1966, City of Philadelphia photographer Ralph Carollo took a series of fourteen images to document Dr. King’s tour of Philadelphia neighborhoods with Mrs. Sigrid Craig, founder of the Better Philadelphia Committee.[1] These photos were in an original envelope from 1966 included in one of the hundreds of boxes of official City of Philadelphia photographs waiting to be scanned and uploaded to PhillyHistory.org. The envelope described the contents as “Streets Sanitation: 1800 Block N. Lambert St, Mrs. Craig.” It was with great excitement that I “discovered” these photos also included Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.! Immediately, I wanted to know why this icon of the Civil Rights Movement was in Philadelphia  in 1966 on a streets sanitation tour.

Dr. King, as was his mission, traveled extensively around the country to speak at rallies and gatherings to promote the cause of civil rights. In the few days of October 1966 he was here, his presence bolstered at least three events. Dr. King was welcomed to Philadelphia by the Rev. William L. Bentley, pastor of the Emmanuel Institutional Baptist Church and president of the Interfaith Interracial Council.

Accompanied by Rev. Bentley, Dr. King’s first stop in Philadelphia was to speak Sunday, Oct. 9th at The Arena before a crowd of 1500 as part of a rally organized by Civil Rights activist James Meredith and sponsored by the Interfaith Interracial Council of the Clergy. Dubbed by the Philadelphia Inquirer as “the lonesome traveler of the civil rights movement,” Meredith may be most remembered for his brush with death only four months before this rally.[2]

James Meredith was the first African American student to enroll at the University of Mississippi. Persevering under intense opposition, he graduated in 1964, and in 1966 “began a one man protest against racial violence in Mississippi which he called a ‘March Against Fear.’” Originating in Memphis, Tennessee, the march was to end at Jackson, Mississippi, but shortly

Photo courtesy of the Philadelphia Inquirer, October 9, 1966

after he crossed into Mississippi, Meredith was shot by an unknown assailant. Dr. Martin Luther King and the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, led by Stokely Carmichael, continued on the march, meeting the recovering Meredith the day before they reached the state capital.[3]

On Monday, October 10, Dr. King, accompanied by his good friend and fellow activist Ralph Abernathy, Rev. William Bentley and others toured African American neighborhoods in the city. Captured images show the entourage speaking to Mrs. Craig, meeting tradesmen working on some of the houses on the 1800 block of N. Lambert Street, and interacting with people on the street. Details of the images show Dr. King outfitted with a microphone and cord.[4] I’m sure the people of that neighborhood got a rare treat in hearing the words of Dr. King that day, although the exact topics of his speeches remain unknown.

Dr. King’s next engagement while in Philadelphia was to speak at a luncheon honoring Rev. William Bentley on his 25th anniversary as pastor of the Emmanuel Institutional Baptist Church. The luncheon, sponsored by the Greater Chamber of Commerce, took place at the Benjamin Franklin Hotel and was attended by approximately 300 businessmen of Philadelphia.[5] Dr. King’s message at this gathering emphasized that “’There are two Americas in existence today.  One is white America, which is beautiful and prosperous. The other is the America of the Negroes which is ugly, brooding, defeated and disappointed.’” Dr. King went on to point out to the businessmen the wide salary gap between white and black workers, and said “This presents for our nation a problem which must be dealt with. To move ahead we must solve it. As long as nothing is done, it will only encourage the forces of extremism.”[6] Fifty-three years later, these words continue to encourage us to look for inequities in our current systems. Though Dr. King’s work ended too soon, there is still much to discover about his life and mission; and through that discovery, much to learn and teach to our children as leaders of tomorrow.

Discovering these images in an unobtrusively labeled envelope shows the importance of the photo organization and digitization completed via PhillyHistory.org. It is our task to properly catalog and scan the photos in the Philadelphia City Archives collection and store them in new, archival quality envelopes and boxes. Thousands of images have been scanned and uploaded, but many thousands still await scanning. As we go through each envelope, we know that not all are labeled accurately. This could be due to photographer error, changes in street names, architecture, or events. Images that now have historical importance perhaps were considered quite ordinary when the photographer took them. In 1966 Dr. Martin Luther King was not regarded in the same light that he is now. Perhaps that can account for the labeling of this archival envelope. Whatever the reason for this labeling, discovering a snippet of American history in the Philadelphia City Archives is greatly exciting, and has now added another facet to the noble story and life of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the City of Philadelphia.

 

 

[1] Them That Do: Stories About Philadelphia’s Block Captains, Sigrid Craig – Mother of Philadelphia Block Captains. (7 May, 2015). http://themthatdo.net/2015/05/sigrid-craig-mother-of-philadelphia-block-captains/. The Better Philadelphia Committee evolved into the Clean-up, Paint-Up, Fix-Up campaign, eventually becoming the Philadelphia More Beautiful Committee in 1965.

[2] The Philadelphia Inquirer. Monday Morning, October 10, 1966. pg 6.

[3] BlackPast.org, Remembered and Reclaimed: A Reference Guide to African American History. Meredith, James (1933- ). https://blackpast.org/aah/meredith-james-1933 (Accessed 22 Jan, 2019.)

[4] https://www.phillyhistory.org/PhotoArchive/Detail.aspx?assetId=156952

[5] The Philadelphia Inquirer. Tuesday Morning, October 11, 1966. pg. 6.

[6] Ibid. Dr. King noted that the “Average annual salary of white workers in the country is $6874 while that of Negro workers is $3662.”

 

 

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