When determined group of Philadelphia activists sought to transform mid-20th century race relations, their inspirations were many.
Quakerism. Progressivism. The Social Gospel movement. The theories of scholars such as W.E.B. Du Bois, Charles S. Johnson, Franz Boas and Ruth Benedict.
NIU Department of History professor Stanley Arnold explores three of these organizations in his new book, “Building the Beloved Community: Philadelphia’s Interracial Civil Rights Organizations and Race Relations, 1930-1970,” published by the University Press of Mississippi.
Arnold’s research shows how a northern city with de facto segregation overcame prejudice and became a beacon for the rest of America
While Fellowship House, the Philadelphia Housing Association and the and the Fellowship Commission initially focused on community-level relations, all became increasingly involved in building coalitions for the passage of civil rights legislation on the local, state and national level.
The book examines their efforts across three distinct, yet closely related areas: education, housing and labor.
Perhaps the most important aspect of this movement was it utilization of education as a weapon in the struggle against racism.
Martin Luther King Jr. credited Fellowship House with introducing him to “satygraha” – more generally known as nonviolent resistance – through a Sunday afternoon forum. In this regard, Philadelphia’s activists heavily influenced the Southern civil rights movement through ideas and tactics.
Borrowing from Philadelphia, similar organizations would rise in cities from Kansas City to Knoxville. Their impact would have long-lasting implications; the tactics they pioneered would help to shape contemporary multicultural education programs.
“Building the Beloved Community” places this innovative Northern civil rights struggle into a broader historical context. Through interviews, photographs and rarely utilized primary sources, Arnold critically evaluates the contributions and shortcomings of this innovative approach to race relations.
“I grew up during the civil rights movement and often wondered about activism in the North, especially my hometown of Philadelphia,” Arnold said.
“My work examines how local activists of all races organized to combat discrimination,” he added. “Although they cooperated with national civil rights organizations in fighting for legislative changes, their primary objective was to facilitate communication across racial lines. They pioneered many of the multicultural programs we take for granted today.”