Mantua: 50 Years Later, MLK’s Speech Still Rings True

Fifty years ago this summer, Martin Luther King Jr. came to the Mantua neighborhood of Philadelphia as part of his “Freedom Now!” tour around the northern cities of the United States. King spoke to thousands of people gathered on 40th and Lancaster Avenue about the struggles that African Americans were going through in 1965.

During his two-day visit to Philadelphia, King stated on multiple occasions that segregated housing, lack of education and unemployment were the biggest problems facing the black community.

“There is the problem of de facto segregation in the public schools, which is a very serious problem,” King said. “And then problem of employment discrimination, and the fact that the Negro is still at the bottom of the economic ladder.”

In an interview before his speech with KYW NewsRadio, King was asked what Philadelphians who are going through racial struggles should do.

Martin Luther King, Jr
Martin Luther King, Jr

“Well, I have said over and over again that there’s nothing to do but to continue the struggle, and to continue to keep the issue before the forefront of the conscience of the community,” King said. “Certainly this problem is symbolic of the same problem that we face in the South.” w=500 h=281]

Now, almost 50 years later, Mantuans are facing some of the same problems as residents from 1965.

“We have priorities,” said Mantua Civic Association President DeWayne Drummond. “Education is one of them. Workforce opportunities and redevelopment – these are the big ticket issues that we need to work on.”

Mantua residents used to send it's kids to University City High School, until it was closed.
Mantua residents used to send it’s kids to University City High School, until it was closed.

According to the Office of Accountability of the Philadelphia School District, the four-year graduation rate was 64 percent for people entering Philadelphia high schools in 2008.

While this is a major improvement over the 44 percent graduation rate in 2002, according to Integrated Public Use Microdata Series (IPUMS), African American’s born from 1946-1950 graduated at a rate of 64 percent nationally.

IPUMS High School Graduation Data
IPUMS Historical High School Graduation Data

There also hasn’t been much improvement in the unemployment rate of African Americans in the past 50 years.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 1960, 10 percent of African Americans were unemployed and in 2013, the number stood at 12.2 percent. In Philadelphia, the current unemployment rate for African Americans is almost double Philadelphia’s overall average.

Mantuans are hoping to see a change in this. Many residents have expressed the need for more businesses along Lancaster Avenue, which would bring more jobs to the area.

At the rally that drew more than 10,000 people, King told the people of Philadelphia that they shouldn’t wait around for their struggles to be solved gradually, but rather to get involved in the struggle now, a sentiment that Mantua residents can still relate to.

Text and images by Andrew Vlasak.


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