Much talk of unity at South Philly High

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

On a day when students marched against violence on North Broad Street on North Broad Street, South Philadelphia High School was the site Monday of eloquent talk about peace and nonviolence as civic, religious, and School District leaders came together with students to invoke the spirit of the Rev. Martin Luther King.

The District-sponsored event, which drew a crowd of 150, came in the wake of the attacks on Asian students, their decision to boycott school until they felt safer, and criticism of the District’s response to the incident.

Superintendent Arlene Ackerman has taken heat for refusing to meet with the Asian students for more than a week afterwards and for recently suggesting that gang activity might have been a factor in the attack.

"I am so proud of the students here at South Philadelphia High School," she told the crowd. "By coming here today you are sending out loud and clear the message that you are commited to finding a way to overcome hatred and violence."

She spoke directly to the Asian students in attendance, comparing their experiences to her own as a child in the segregated South, where Black students, including herself, were harassed when they integrated a previously all-White school.

"When we were allowed to go to school with White children, we were hated, and we were spat upon, we were attacked. I understand clearly what that feels like, and I want you to know that my heart aches for you and what you experienced that day," she said.

She added that she "understands the frustration" of Black students who she said were uniformly painted by the media as "thugs and criminals because…you happen to look like some of the kids who took part in the December 3 attack. I lived your story of discrimination and I understand what you’re feeling. But Dr. King gave us a really important message, and that was to come together, unified, and stop hate based on race."

She said, "We come together today to begin healing." She said, "We want to put this painful episode behind us," but also "learn from what happened on December 3."

All the speakers, including senior Wei Chen, president of the Chinese American Student Association at the school and a leader of the boycott, invoked the memory of Dr. King. Chen called him "a hero of my heart…. We must learn to live together as brothers."

Nina Ahmed, chair of the Mayor’s Commission on Asian Affairs, pointed out that this day is a result of cross-cultural exchange: King got his inspiration for direct nonviolent protest from Mohandas Gandhi, who led his people in peaceful protest against the British and helped birth the modern state of India.

Mayor Nutter made an unscheduled appearance, saying that "all of us have to learn how to live together."

Alluding to the incident and its aftermath, he said, "We’ve all learned lessons" and "all of us make mistakes."

He praised the students for their activism "and demonstrating to adults that young people know how to take care of their business."

Before and after the speeches, about 30 students participated in workshops organized by EducationWorks on a variety of subject, including poetry, the media, discrimination, and stereotypes, and valuing self.