A Day with Doctor King: How the McAllister Family Found themselves in History

ByTom Kretschmer Localish logo
Sunday, November 26, 2023
A day with Dr. King: How one Philly family found themselves in history
The McAllister family always knew they were there, with a front-row ticket to history, but they never knew a photograph of that day existed.

PHILADELPHIA -- In August of 1965, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave a speech outside the gates of then-segregated Girard College in Philadelphia.

His voice echoed across the city and nation, he made a call to end segregation at that school and schools everywhere.

Nine-year-old Curtis McAllister, his 12-year-old sister Learley, brother Clyde, and his mother attended King's speech that day outside Girard College.

For months, Cecil B. Moore and Philadelphia's civil rights leaders had been campaigning for the school to desegregate. The school was bound by a charter from Stephen Girard to only admit white orphan boys into the school.

The demonstrations caught the attention of MLK, and so he decided to join the cause in August of that year.

The children were too young to know who King truly was and what he was doing in Philadelphia that August day. But they remember how the entire city was buzzing with anticipation to see the iconic civil rights leader visit.

"I remember my mom dressing us up all in white so we would stand out," explains Curtis, now a community activist in the Nicetown neighborhood of Philadelphia. "That way, we'd stand out from anyone else that's out there. In that particular time, there were death threats to MLK. She wanted to make sure she protected us."

The McAllister family always knew they were there, with a front-row ticket to history, but they never knew a photograph of that day existed.

Roughly 45 years later, in 2010, while surfing the web and the Special Collections Research Center at Temple University Libraries, Curtis came across a photograph taken by Jack Franklin with the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin of that exact speech.

He first spotted his brother, and then himself, his whole family, standing front row at that iconic speech so many years ago. He and his family never knew the existence of the picture, and it was a revelation.

"Looking at the picture, all of a sudden I saw a tiny head. I said, 'Oh my God! That's my brother, Clyde!' Then I realized I was standing behind him! And my sister and my mother. I jumped out of the computer desk, and I started yelling, 'I found the picture! After 45 years I found the picture!'"

Clear as day, standing on his tiptoes or being held up, Curtis' brother Clyde and his expressive big eyes can be seen peaking over a policeman's shoulder to catch a glimpse of King as he spoke to the gathering crowd.

His brother Clyde and his mother died before ever seeing the picture, but finding it was a revelation in the history of his family.

"As a young man in my life, listening to Doctor King, he was pointing down. It was like he was pointing directly at us. For all my community activism in my life, I believe this speech had an impact," he said.

Learley McAllister can be seen standing behind her brother, Curtis, in the photograph. As a 12-year-old, she doesn't remember exactly why the iconic civil rights movement came to their backyard.

"When you're children, you're really impressionable. I do remember the marching. And oh, the singing and singing! I don't remember what MLK said at that point, but I remember the singing, the joy, the excitement," she recalled.

Curtis today is a community activist and marches to raise awareness for a lot of causes around the city.

One of the causes near to his heart was getting a plaque and mural made for an enslaved woman who was eventually freed, Dinah, at Stenton Park.

"I became a community activist and I'm going to do everything to keep the dream going on. I laugh a little about it, you're never too old to keep on marching," he noted.

His sister Learley is a lifelong educator and it's fair to say the day they both spent with Doctor Martin Luther King in North Philadelphia resonated in their lives and shaped them to keep King's legacy alive.

"It's a small story but it's a meaningful story. I believe our mother was a freedom fighter. Our mom always used to sing the song, 'I'm Pressing On.' When he was assassinated in 1968, I cried. And all I remember is this speech. Not in '68, but here in North Philadelphia. Every time I drive by, I stop and say, 'Thank you, Doctor King. Thank you for all you have done.' And that's how it played a part in my life," Curtis exclaimed.

Special thanks to Temple University's Special Collections Research Center for help in finding the original photograph of King's event in 1965.