Louise Hanible has accumulated many momentous memories, but few can challenge the 72-year-old’s recollections of what her Hawthorne neighborhood experienced Aug. 3, 1965. On what the resident of the 1000 block of South 13th Street termed “a beautiful day,” Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. visited 13th and Fitzwater streets during his Freedom Now tour’s two-day Philadelphia stop.
His appearance inspired Hanible and her colleagues to beseech the City and the Philadelphia Housing Authority for a nostalgic symbol, and they reveled April 4, the 44th anniversary of the leader’s assassination, with the unveiling of a cast aluminum historical marker at the intersection.
“There were so many people here you couldn’t even see, but you could hear his message,” Hanible said of the spring occasion that King used to build momentum for northern cities’ civil rights causes and to secure funds for them.
She joined with 2,300 others that day at the former Hawthorne Community and Recreation Center to heed his call for economic change, a philosophy that would blossom two years later with the Poor People’s Campaign formation. Though last week’s crowd came in at only a fraction of its predecessor’s, its members likewise advocated for community growth and social responsibility.
“History should never be forgotten,” Michael Kelly, the authority’s administrative receiver and executive director, said while noting the legacy of King, who made Hawthorne the location for one of his five Aug. 2 to 3 corner rallies.
Kelly’s 75-year-old organization teamed with the City to build Hawthorne Square, a four-tower plaza with 576 units, in 1960. King, who in ’63 had delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington, D.C., selected northern locations to tackle their de facto segregation and lack of mobility for the downtrodden. His local influence proved so poignant that then-state Rep. James Tayoun petitioned the authority to rename the square “MLK Plaza,” which the nation’s fourth largest housing authority did Feb. 9, ’70.
“You are on holy ground,” Tayoun said to about 100 attendees.
The 82-year-old, who also served as 1st District Councilman from ’76 to ’84 and ’88 to ’92, relayed that King’s era presented promise that went unfulfilled in Hawthorne, as blight, crime and social ills made frustration frequent.
“I attended so many funerals because the projects were prisons,” he said.
King, whose civil disobedience landed him stays in actual jails, first achieved fame as an organizer of the 381-day Montgomery Bus Boycott of ’55 to ’56, and ventured to South Philadelphia one year after claiming the Nobel Peace Prize and eight years after creating the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Support for the latter prompted King to sojourn to Boston, Chicago and Cleveland in addition to Philadelphia, with numerous area destinations sampling the preacher’s passion for equality.
“His vision was one of true harmony and equality,” Mayor Michael Nutter said of King.
Overseer of a municipality that averaged 331 homicides between 2007 and ’11, he stressed that respect for differences, whether racial or economic, has not reached its zenith and that King’s beliefs “have not been completely realized.”
With numerous proponents of progression surrounding him, he noted economic justice must come to dominate political and communal discussions. A laminated placard of his two-day agenda revealed King wanted Philadelphia at the forefront of such talks.
“Everything about Dr. King centered on love,” 3rd District Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell said of the pioneer, whose quest met an abrupt end April 4, 1968 in Memphis, Tenn.
His affection for burdened citizens, regardless of color, resonated with state Sen. Anthony Williams, who that morning had crossed the Benjamin Franklin Bridge to commemorate King’s March 9, ’65 march across Selma, Ala.’s Edmund Pettus Bridge, which preceded a historic trek to Montgomery, Ala., to demand improved civil rights.
“He did for those who could not do for themselves,” Williams said. “South Philadelphia contributed to his message, but we have to look past markers and focus more on responsibilities to fight for the poor.”
On account of various troubles, the City imploded MLK Plaza in ’99, one year after the National Commission on Severely Distressed Public Housing had given the authority more than $25 million through its HOPE VI program. The initiative designated Hawthorne, running from 11th to Broad streets and from Washington Avenue to South Street, for revitalization, and new development began in 2001, with completion of 245 low-rise homes ending last June. An expanse still looking to advance, Hawthorne has many wishing for it to resemble what greeted King’s arrival.
“In the old days, this neighborhood was together,” Hanible said. “It was like family; doors were always open. I would like to see that come back.”
As his “I Have a Dream” rhetoric makes clear, King craved ample social possibilities for children, and the learners at Norris Barratt School, now George Childs School, 1599 Wharton St., interacted with him shortly before his 4 p.m. trek to Hawthorne.
“He told them they were the architects of their destiny,” U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah said of the educator’s Point Breeze stay.
King’s decision to deliver advice to the students touched state Sen. Larry Farnese, whose uncle, Ben Farnese, served as principal of Barratt.
“Memorializing Dr. King never loses importance,” Farnese, whose district includes Hawthorne, said of the slain voice, who posthumously received the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal. “Here we are, one more time, to honor his good work.”
Like Farnese, 2nd District Councilman Kenyatta Johnson was not yet born when King made his local jaunt, but the Point Breeze product, who attended Barratt and Childs, then 1541 S. 17th St., recounted his family’s Hawthorne history.
“I had relatives who grew up in the 1301 [Fitzwater] building, so this is a personal day for me,” Johnson said, adding that current days present chances to remind everyone that similarities, such as the need for resources, trump disparities and should motivate people to create and find avenues for change.
“Philadelphia is ahead of the curve in doing just that,” Dr. William Tucker, Philadelphia MLK Association for Nonviolence president, said, adding that figures like King are inspirations and that listeners of his messages must care enough to maintain literal and figurative gifts.
Once what he termed “a victim of poverty,” Hawthorne has rebounded, as the plaza has attracted homeowners and renters since redevelopment began. They can now view the marker, which rests just feet from where King spoke. Nearly five decades later, Hanible, who has spent most of her life in Hawthorne, desires for it to inspire all.
“I hope this marker will stand as a symbol,” she said, “as it gives us a little bit of our history back.”
Contact Staff Writer Joseph Myers at firstname.lastname@example.org or ext. 124.