Girard College is focal point for MLK day of service

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Camden dance group Universal African Dance and Drum Ensemble, of the Unity Community Center, performs during the announcement ceremony at Girard College. (ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / Staff Photographer)

Kenneth Salaam remembers marching around the walls of Girard College with civil-rights leader and lawyer Cecil B. Moore, who joined forces with others to protest the school's discriminatory admissions policy.

It was during the height of that movement, 45 years ago, when Martin Luther King Jr. traveled to Girard to call for unity. Salaam was one of the Freedom Fighters who skipped high school classes in 1965-66 to march at Girard College in protest.

"Thank God today that we kept our eyes on the prize and held on," Salaam said yesterday to students at Girard as part of the announcement for this year's MLK Day of Service.

A lot has changed at the school since then - integration, co-education, and the hiring of the school's first black, female president. On Jan. 18, about 3,000 people will gather at the school for the day of service to reap the fruits of the labors of Moore, King and Salaam - and to participate in various community-service programs throughout the day.

"For so long, the school was closed off," said Autumn Adkins, the school president. "The school's bruised in some ways . . . I'm just honored that I'm able to do this."

About 70,000 other volunteers are expected to participate in the daylong community-service pro-jects across the Delaware Valley, said Todd Bernstein, president of Global Citizen. That is the nonprofit group that leads the Greater Philadelphia Martin Luther King Day of Service and MLK365, launched last year to convert this daylong effort into community engagement year-round.

What began 15 years ago with roughly 500 volunteers participating in several dozen projects in Philadelphia has blossomed into a national movement, with the city at its epicenter, he said.

Yesterday, Bernstein was joined by Adkins, Mayor Nutter, Schools Superintendent Arlene Ackerman and others to encourage citizens to "use King's legacy to build character and break down barriers," he said.

Nutter presented the Harris Wofford Active Citizenship Award to Vanguard Group, one of the event's sponsors. Wofford, a former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania, pushed legislation in the early 1990s transforming the King holiday into a nationwide call to citizen action.

Earlier yesterday, dozens of students from several area schools unveiled a civil-rights mural with images inspired by King and also social and environmental issues.

Jane Golden, executive director of the Mural Arts Program, said she wanted students to evoke the spirit of King's vision.

We asked students "to think about the world then and to think about the world today and to create a contemporary Bill of Rights," she said. " . . . [W]e are the keepers of his word, his passion, his dedication."

It's not too late for any individual, family or organization to sign up for a service program. For more information on the MLK Day of Service, go to www.mlkday ofservice.org, or call 215-665- 2475.