Remembering Philly’s 1967 School Walkout & The Attack On Teen Activism

March 13, 2018 | by Michael Bixler

African American high school students gathering at the Board of Education Building to protest the school system’s “white policy.” | Image courtesy of the George D. McDowell Philadelphia Evening Bulletin Collection at Temple University Libraries, Special Collections Research Center

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. 

Tensions between teens and police were high in the days after the Philadelphia Police Department attacked a crowd of Black student demonstrators at a nonviolent rally on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. On November 20, 1967, Richard Digilio and William Eldridge, members of the JAD Gang Control Unit, look back at a rear window of the car that they were riding in after it was hit by a Coke bottle as they traveled past Edison High School. | Image courtesy of the George D. McDowell Philadelphia Evening Bulletin Collection at Temple University Libraries, Special Collections Research Center

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.


About the Author

Michael Bixler is a writer, editor, and photographer engaged in dialogue and documentation of the built environment and how it relates to history, culture, and the urban experience. He is the editorial director and chief photographer of Hidden City Philadelphia.


  1. Gary Grissom says:

    I remember arriving at the School Board and seeing police rush toward the students, Groups of students were chased into center city causing pedestrians to scatter. It’s strange seeing the old looking black and white, probably tri-x film, photographs. Is one of the photos showing the Reverend David Gracie being arrested?

    1. Ken Heard says:

      Greetings Gary:

      Please text Ken Heard at 2672597196 as we would like to include your experience in our records.

  2. Anne Hoban says:

    Great article. I attended Hallahan Catholic Girls High School (19th and Wood St in Philadelphia) and recall that during my senior year (1970-71), a protest group occupied the auditorium for several days. It was totally peaceful. Most of the black students left their classes and sat in the auditorium. it was never discussed during or after. I can’t find anything about it online. Do you know anything about it?



    1. Ken Heard says:

      Greetings Annie

      Please text Ken Heard at 2672597196 and would need to record the event you are stating for inclusion in our historic records and presentations.

  3. Ken Heard says:

    Please text Ken Heard at 2672597196 regarding the above information as we are actively collecting data on events around school demonstrations particularly in Philadelphia. The National Writers Union Philadelphia Chapter had a speaker in to present on the 1967 demonstration some years ago. The demonstration was organized by the Africa American Student Society and had as a major component, the Student Action Committee which met with Mark Sheds for an entire year before the Even. We have contact with then Catholic school students who also participated and were involved in after actions.

    Regarding Barry Dawson, who was second in command in the Philadelphia Student Non Violent Coordinating Committee office, recent interviews with leaders of the Revolutionary Action Movement does not place Barry with RAM at any point in his activities.

  4. patricia henry says:

    Who was the school board supervisor before william hite

  5. Ken Heard says:

    The students who organized the 17th of November 1967 Philadelphia School Board Demonstration had made an agreement not to confront the police and to withdraw from any possible physical conract in planning the demonstration.

    The negotiations with the adults to attend had a concession to withdraw and not confront the police at the demonstration.

    The entire leadership of the students was arrested after certain adults (who were susposed to be inside the Old School Buliding) with their supporters as they did not resist, but left the area if they could as thevpolice attacked. In later years the statement of particular adults that they told students to fight the police was not the agreement which had been hammered out with the adults.

    Those actions by certain adults actions made it very difficult to win the subsequent court case fought for by the students seperately from the adults for the students.

    Contact: Ken Heard,
    POB 42381

    1. jerry oppenheimer says:

      I believe some of the photos may be mine. Back then I was a reporter, asstnt city editor, for the Daily News. I had just gotten a new cameraand it was my day off and it was several days after my 25th birthday. I decided to head down to to thedemonstration to try out the camera and caught the action. Went back to the Daily News office and the managing editor J. Ray Hunt put one of the photos on Page One and I believe a couple inside.

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