At 10AM local time tomorrow morning students across the country will get up from their desks and head for the exit doors in what will be the largest collective action to date for gun reform. The 17-minute nationwide walkout, led by the group Women’s March Youth Empower, is organized to honor the 17 students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida that were murdered on February 14 and the victims of over 200 school shootings since Sandy Hook in 2014. The demonstration’s organizers seek to put pressure on Congress and state governments to act on proposed firearm laws. The protest calls for Democrats and Republicans to end the self-serving debate over gun control and pass safety measures into law like universal background checks for gun sales, a ban on bump stocks and assault riffles, and a restraining order law that would give courts the authority to disarm individuals that exhibit signs of violent behavior.
Wednesday’s walkout will be the biggest display of teenage activism in recent times. In Texas and Wisconsin, some school districts have threatened participating students with harsh punishment like docked grades and three-day suspensions. In Philadelphia, School District Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. announced in a letter to principals last week that no disciplinary action should be taken against student participation in the protest. He even encouraged school administrators to organize activities like group discussions, guest speakers, and art and essay projects to foster dialogue on the issue.
Superintendent Hite’s advocacy and protection is a far cry from the temperament of the City 51 years ago when thousands of high school students staged a similar walkout to protest inequality in the classroom. Students gathered on November 17, 1967 in front of the old Board of Education building on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway to peacefully demand better conditions in schools, the hiring of more African American administrators, the inclusion of African American history in curriculum, and acceptance of Black culture in the classroom. Teenagers shouting “Black Power!” and “Black Studies!” marched in from all over the city to the rally on the Parkway that early winter morning. Religious and secular advocates, School District officials, and students from Catholic schools joined the crowd in solidarity. The demonstration was organized by student leaders with the help of famed Philly community activist Walt Palmer. The action would go down in the books as one of the country’s largest protests led by teenagers. It would also become one of the city’s most violent displays of police brutality after former Mayor Frank Rizzo, then the Philadelphia Police Commissioner, ordered nearly 400 police officers to attack students and supporters participating in the demonstration.
The Board of Education originally requested that the Philadelphia Police Department send no uniformed police officers to the demonstration, but eventually agreed on the presence of a plain clothed “Civil Disobedience Squad” under pressure from the PPD. After the lieutenant of the squad radioed for assistance, Police Commissioner Rizzo showed up on the Parkway with busloads of between 300 to 400 officers in helmets wielding nightsticks. Shortly after noon, Rizzo decided that the students were getting out of hand after a kid allegedly jumped onto the hood of a police car. He then ordered his army of officers to “get their black asses” and attack the crowd with blunt force. Scores of teenage protesters were beaten. 57 protesters—39 teenagers and 18 adults—were arrested. 15 protestors were hospitalized. Dozens were injured, including five police officers and an Episcopalian priest there to support the students.
Following what African American leaders and employees of the Board of Education say amounted to a vicious “police riot,” Commissioner Rizzo defended the use of force on male and female teens. In formal statements, Mayor James Hugh Joseph Tate applauded Rizzo’s “firm” approach to the demonstration. A panel of three judges ruled in favor of the Police Commissioner’s actions and dismissed a federal lawsuit filed by victims of the brutal attack before the student’s lawyers could fully present their cases. The day following the attack 800 African American leaders held a community meeting in West Philadelphia and voted to boycott the city’s public schools until the student’s demands were met. The following week, on November 22, 1967, more than 1,000 white students, teachers, and parents held a three-hour rally outside of the Police Administration Building at 7th and Race to protest the PPD’s violent attack of Black teen activists on the Parkway. White supporters and the Philadelphia chapter of the NAACP called for Rizzo to resign. Three years later, Francis Lazarro Rizzo would be elected mayor of Philadelphia.
A nonviolent student protest for equal rights becomes a brutal police riot on November 17, 1967. All images courtesy of the George D. McDowell Philadelphia Evening Bulletin Collection at Temple University Libraries, Special Collections Research Center.