Celebrating Pittsburgh's civil rights history
Today marks an important day in American history. It is Martin Luther King Jr. Day, dedicated to a man who is revered for his ideas of social justice, racial equity, and nonviolent protest. Nearly 40 years after King’s death in 1968 and more than 20 years after the holiday was first signed into law and commemorated, Martin Luther King Jr. Day holds a unique position among national holidays.
To begin with, its history is a controversial one. Although Ronald Reagan signed the day into law in 1983, it was first observed in 1986. Numerous states and their representatives resisted the attempts to make the holiday official, or chose to recognize the holiday with alternative names. Taking an extreme stance on the issue, South Carolina did not recognize Martin Luther King Jr. Day as a paid holiday until 2000, the first year the holiday was officially observed by all 50 states. Instead, the state offered employees the choice of celebrating either King’s birthday or one of three Confederate holidays. In Virginia, Martin Luther King Jr. Day was recognized as Lee-Jackson-King Day, juxtaposing the names of two Confederate heroes with that of King.
More conventional recognitions of Martin Luther King Jr. Day have since taken precedence. Former Pennsylvania Senator Harris Wofford and Georgia Representative John Lewis created the King Holiday and Service Act, urging Americans to participate in a day of service intended to honor King. First-year Arshia Ahuja agrees with this method of memorializing King. “Martin Luther King Jr. Day is an opportunity for service,” she said. “It’s a time for reflection — Dr. King’s life and efforts affected everybody.”
King’s life was indeed an illustrious one. Most Americans are familiar with his “I Have a Dream” speech, delivered on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, and are aware of his numerous marches and protests, and of his sacrifices while in jail. However, there remain some facts about his life and work which are not widely known. King wrote several books, from The Measure of a Man in 1959, to Strength to Love in 1963 and Why We Can’t Wait, published in 1964. His books respectively explore the theology concerning nonviolent activism, a collection of some of his most famous sermons, and an analysis of both civil rights history and the next steps toward social justice in America. There is also a posthumously published collection of his speeches titled I Have a Dream: Writings and Speeches That Changed the World.
In addition to his well-known civil rights work, King was also an avid anti-war protestor, and he spent the last few years of his life speaking out against the Vietnam War. He also worked with unions throughout the country in an attempt to improve economic inequalities. The youngest person to receive the Nobel Peace Prize, King is also one of 10 designated 20th-century world martyrs to have a statue at Westminster Abbey in London.
Carnegie Mellon is giving students, faculty, and staff the afternoon of Martin Luther King Jr. Day off for service purposes. The administration has several programs planned for the day, including addresses, forums, and readings to commemorate King’s life. Local institutions throughout Pittsburgh have also planned events for the celebration of Martin Luther King Jr. Day. The Western Pennsylvania Diversity Initiative has planned a 2011 MLK Day Community Service Project, during which they will be partnering with Pittsburgh Cares, a volunteer organization dedicated to increasing community engagement, to create a fulfilling and altruistic program.
Multiple arts organizations throughout the city also will be honoring King’s accomplishments. The Carnegie Museums of Art and Natural History will have free admission and parking today. In addition, the Pittsburgh Glass Center is offering a day of free mosaic making, glass blowing, and flame working demonstrations. East Liberty’s Kelly-Strayhorn Theater is hosting a celebratory event with music and dance from groups including the YMCA Westinghouse Lighthouse Project and the Alumni Theater Company. The August Wilson Center opens a new exhibit titled Civil Rights Superheroes on Monday in honor of King. Created to demonstrate the effectiveness of comic books and cartoons in bringing people to the civil rights movement, the exhibit is based on the 1958 comic book Civil Rights Superheroes: Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story and includes letters from King.
Local efforts and plans for Martin Luther King Jr. Day reflect Pittsburgh’s extensive civil rights history. Although Pittsburgh may not be the first location that comes to mind when one thinks of the civil rights movement, Pittsburgh was in fact involved in many key components of civil rights history in the United States. Pittsburgh was a key station of the Underground Railroad, which helped approximately 100,000 slaves escape from the slaveholding South into the North. Middle-class African-Americans in the Hill District often allowed runaway slaves to stay in their churches as they made their way further north.
The North Side, known as Allegheny in the early 1800s, was another local stop on the railroad. Black and white civil rights leaders, including African-Americans Martin Delany, John Vashon, and Lewis Woodson and whites Charles Avery, Julius Lemoyne, and Jane Grey Swisshelm, founded a school for black children and the North Side’s Avery College — both likely Underground Railroad stops — to provide higher education for blacks who were not admitted to colleges and universities.
After the Emancipation Proclamation and the end of the Civil War, many African-Americans came into Pittsburgh to work in factories in the city. Although they were free from slavery, they still had to battle heavy prejudice and racism. In response, black leaders organized several protests to try to combat the discrimination. The Pittsburgh Courier, one of the oldest and best-known black newspapers in the country, was founded in 1910 and was highly influential in rallying people to the cause of civil rights. A major battle for black civil rights was won in 1937 when the Pittsburgh Board of Education hired its first black teacher, Lawrence Peeler.
During World War II, the struggle for civil rights increased. In the years immediately following the war, protests for equality grew larger and more frequent. A member of the Urban League led pickets to force downtown department stores to hire black clerks. The Montefiore and St. Francis hospitals began to admit blacks into their nursing schools, and Montefiore Hospital allowed African-American doctor Charles Burks staff privileges — a significant step forward for African-Americans in the medical industry.
After the Supreme Court’s decision against segregation in Brown v. Board of Education, Pittsburgh began to desegregate its schools, swimming pools, and other institutions and began to build the Civic Arena — later known as the Mellon Arena — located in the Lower Hill. Several Pittsburghers traveled “down South” with freedom riders to press for civil rights in states like Mississippi.
In 1968, the assassination of King sparked riots in Pittsburgh, causing fires to devastate regions of the Hill District. Ultimately, however, the foundation for a platform of social justice had been laid, and the city was able to collectively move forward to where it is today. Today’s celebrations will allow all of us the opportunity to reflect on what it cost the nation and our city to be where we are today in terms of social justice and racial equality, and to consider and act upon what is necessary to move us to where we ought to be.