Philadelphia: “On November 17, 1967, thousands of middle and high school students organized a citywide walkout to the former Board of Education building here and were met with police violence.” Dr. Walter Palmer, a chief organizer of the walkout, recalls when students set off fire-alarms in school buildings all across the city of Philadelphia on that fateful day. On March 19, 2022, elected officials, activists, and other Philadelphians gathered for the unveiling of the Black Student Walkouts historical marker at the intersection of 21st and Winter Streets that was organized by Helen Gym and Masterman High School alumni.
At noon November 17, 1967, three of the twelve adult leaders, Mattie Humphrey, Paul Washington, and Ed Robinson, led the students as they stood beside Palmer and laid out the 25 demands. As demands were met, and cheer erupted from the crowd, then-Police Commissioner and former Philadelphia Mayor Frank Rizzo unleashed over 100 Philadelphia police officers to attack the students.
The Black Student Walkout 25 demands included an end to the system that stifled Black students from attending college, improved school conditions, hired black school instructors, and taught African American History. Although the demands were met in 1967, African American History did not become a required course for high school students in the School District of Philadelphia until 2005. To this day, the School District of Philadelphia is the first and only major school district to make this course a graduation requirement.
Among the keynote speakers was activist Karen Jordan, one of the thousands of students who walked out on that historical day on November 17, 1967. On this day on March 19, 2022, she spoke passionately about her experiences. Jordan recalls waking up that morning, picking up a flyer at Girard College, and seeing bright yellow barricades four to five blocks in every direction. Police officers stood shoulder to shoulder. As she protested, she walked alongside civil rights activist Cecil B. Moore, thinking to herself that, “once you start being an activist, you don’t ever stop.” Speaking, she pointed in the direction of the intersection at 21st and Winter Streets at which the historical marker now stands. She explained that this was where police officers dragged her around the corner at Rizzo’s behest. It was only moments after they mercilessly beat the young man who jumped down and covered her body, saving Jordan’s life.
After being asked if she regretted doing anything that day, Jordan said, “I regret that someone got hurt because I kicked that cop and he couldn’t beat me, so he beat someone else.” She regrets disregarding the advice of her family to stay away which resulted in threats not only to her, but also to her family. Karen Jordan spoke from the heart, “when it comes to activism, not everyone will be on your side and everyone can’t be on the frontline.”
Five university students; Aden Gonzales, Taryn Flaherty, Nia Weeks, Tatiana Bennett, and Alison Fortenberry, petitioned for the historical marker that was unveiled on March 19. Aden Gonzales explains, “It's hard to put into just a few words all of the things that November 17, 1967 represents. Inspiring but saddening seeing how much organizing students have done for their schools and how much violent repression they faced for demanding basic necessities in their schools.” She said that she can not imagine what it was like had she been present that day in 1967.
The 1967 Black Student Walkout in Philadelphia should be as familiar as The Underground Railroad. Yet, of 10 current high school students polled, only one knows about this historical event. Even more surprising, out of ten adults polled, only two are familiar with the events that took place on November 17, 1967 in Philadelphia. Even though the 1967 walkout resulted in Philadelphia becoming the first U.S. school district to mandate African American History, was it enough? The historical marker unveiling is a reminder to all that passionate activism can bring about change, that change is necessary to better our education system, and that it is everybody’s responsibility to study history to implement the change that the students who walked out on November 17, 1967 made.