How the Philadelphia area played a role in Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy

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Martin Luther King Jr. speaking in Philadelphia in 1965. (AP Photo)

By Ashley Adams

January 12, 2024

From attending seminary school in Delaware County, to his efforts to help desegregate Girard College, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s history in the Philly area runs deep.

In 1957, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said to an audience in Montgomery, Ala.: “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?’”

Throughout his life, until his assassination in 1968, Dr. King spent his life doing for others. Fifteen years after his death, in 1983, President Ronald Regan officially made the third Monday in January a federal holiday to honor the slain civil rights leader. Pennsylvania, though, had a bit of a jump on the federal holiday. In 1978, then-Gov. Milton J. Shapp signed a state King Holiday into law.

Both at the state and federal level, MLK Day (as it’s often referred to) was envisioned as a way to honor Dr. King’s life and legacy by giving back. In 1994, Congress passed the King Holiday and Service Act, which created a dedicated day of volunteer service, encouraging those who had the federal holiday off of work to use it to do something for others.

Pennsylvanians will have an opportunity to honor Dr. King Monday on MLK Day, whether they volunteer for a community project, or take some time during the day to reflect on his life and legacy. Though he hailed from Atlanta, the Philadelphia area played a significant role in Dr. King’s life and legacy. 

Dr. King attended seminary school in Delaware County

After graduating from Morehouse College in his native Atlanta, Dr. King enrolled at Crozer Theological Seminary in Upland in 1948. It was one of the most progressive Baptist seminaries of the time. While there, Dr. King interned at the historic Calvary Baptist Church under the Reverend J. Pius Barbour, who was one of his early mentors and the first Black graduate from Crozer.

Dr. King graduated from Crozer in 1951, first in his class.

Dr. King audited classes at Penn

During his time at Crozer, Dr. King would regularly travel to the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia to audit philosophy courses. 

“King’s experience at Penn was vital because it allowed him to hear from Northern professors who were more indifferent to Christianity than the faculty at Crozer,” Patrick Parr, the author of ‘The Seminarian: Martin Luther King Jr. Comes of Age,’ told Penn Today. “It also gave him another chance to see Northern culture from a different perspective.”

Dr. King received one of his first humanitarian awards in Philly

In 1957, after leading the Montgomery bus boycott sparked by Rosa Parks, Dr. King was honored with the National Fellowship Award by the Philadelphia Fellowship Commission — the country’s largest private human rights organization at the time. Dr. King received the award during a ceremony at the former Benjamin Franklin Hotel.

Philly had the most participants at the March on Washington

Dr. King delivered probably his best known speech — ”I Have a Dream” — on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on Aug. 28, 1963 during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. More than 250,000 people attended the event, including over 42,000 march participants from Philadelphia. Samuel Evans, an influential Black entrepreneur, used his connections to organize 500 buses, and reserved a train for Philadelphians who wanted to be present for the momentous occasion.

Dr. King spoke at a rally to help desegregate a Philly school

At the urging of fellow civil rights activist Cecil B. Moore, Dr. King came to Philadelphia in 1965 to help in the fight to desegregate Girard College, a boarding school for economically disadvantaged children. The school had a policy to only admit white male orphans.

“I must face the fact that it is a sad experience at this stage of the 20th century, to have to stand in the city that has been known as the ‘Cradle of Liberty,’ that has in its midst and its presence, a kind of Berlin Wall to keep the colored children of God out,” Dr. King said. “This school is symbolic of a tragic evil in our nation. It is symbolic of a cancer in the body politic which must be removed before our democratic health can be realized.”

In 1968, a month after Dr. King’s assassination, the Supreme Court struck down the school’s whites-only rule.

Dr. King speaks at star-studded event in Philly

Six months before his assassination, in October 1967, Dr. King gave a version of his “Other America” speech at a star-studded fundraising event for the Southern Christian Leadership “Freedom Tour” at the Spectrum in Philadelphia. Celebrities in attendance included Harry Belafonte, Sidney Poitier, Aretha Franklin, and Nipsey Russell.

Earlier in the day, King made a brief appearance at Barratt Junior High School. King used the occasion to speak directly to the teenagers, imploring them to recognize their self-worth and the choices they faced at the dawn of their lives.


  • Ashley Adams

    In her 16 years in the communications industry, Ashley Adams has worn many hats, including news reporter, public relations writer, marketing specialist, copy editor and technical writer. Ashley grew up in Berks County and has since returned to her roots to raise her three children.

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