Philadelphia civil rights activist Cecil B. Moore and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1965 during the struggle to desegregate Girard College in North Philadelphia. Moore migrated to Philadelphia from Dry Fork, West Virginia (Temple University Libraries/The Philadelphia Tribune).
By Michael Coard
If you’re a Black attorney in Philly and don’t practice law a lot like — or even a little like — Cecil B. Moore, then you’re not doing it right.
“Cecil” — as family members and distant strangers along with friends and foes alike always called him — was born 107 years ago on April 2, 1915. And he became everything a Black attorney should aspire to be: He was Black-conscious. He was smart. He was creative. He was aggressive. He was fearless. He was angry — but not in a destructive way.
Instead, he was angry in the way referenced by James Baldwin who profoundly stated, “To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time.”
In other words, and in paraphrasing Baldwin, I often state, “To be Black and conscious in America is to be in a constant state of rage.”
How could you not be? How could you know about slavery, “slave” rapes, “slave” whippings, “slave” auctions, the anti-Reconstruction Redemption Era, Black Codes, convict leasing, sharecropping, disenfranchisement, Jim Crow, lynching, gerrymandering, redlining, inadequate school funding, school-to-prison pipeline, police brutality, the criminal injustice system, mass incarceration, discriminatory unemployment, etc. and not be enraged?
Because Black attorneys are well-educated and are professional researchers, they know better than most people how innately and systemically racist America was and still is. Not only did Cecil know about all that, he did something about all that.
Born in Dry Fork, W.Va., he attended Bluefield College, a proud HBCU in his blatantly racist home state. He later enlisted in the Marines in 1942 and, despite relentless racism there, excelled during basic training in North Carolina at the notoriously grueling but militarily prestigious Montford Point base for Black Marines. Cecil ultimately attained the rank of master sergeant and after serving heroically in World War II was honorably discharged at Fort Mifflin in 1951.
Following his extraordinary military exploits, he moved to Philadelphia and decided he could most effectively battle racial injustice by becoming an attorney. As a result, he enrolled at Temple Law School and graduated in 1953.
As documented by Edirin Oputu and Nick Eiser in a Temple University article entitled “Perseverance and grit: the life and legacy of Cecil B. Moore”: “[He] quickly established a reputation as a gifted lawyer and his services were soon in demand. [One of his three daughters] remembers seeing people waiting in line and sitting outside on the steps to his office, hoping they would get to see him and persuade him to take their case ….
Throughout his illustrious career, Cecil represented thousands of poor Blacks, middle class Blacks and wealthy Blacks. His goal was equity and equitable employment for all Blacks. That’s exactly why, years later in 1974, he said, “I don’t want no more than the white man, but I won’t take no less … [so] let’s fight the damn system!”
His most notable examples of “fighting the damn system” began in the 1960s when he organized protests that included supporters from all across the city and beyond. His protest résumé featured fighting racist labor unions, private businesses, and government agencies. Some of his most famous fights were against Trailways, Greyhound, the U.S. Postal Service — and most certainly Girard College.
Cecil’s goal, as previously stated, was to fight for equity and equitable employment for Black folks. And he won all those fights. In his own words, he proudly declared, “From 1963 to 1967, I got more than 175,000 jobs for Blacks in this town.”
Cecil’s most famous fights and greatest victories for Black folks were against previously mentioned Girard College and against the Mummers.
Girard College had restricted admission to white boys based on the 1831 last will and testament of Stephen Girard. But Cecil wasn’t having it. Therefore, beginning in 1965, he led massive picketing for seven months and 17 days outside the walls of that school until four little Black boys were finally enrolled there (and one of them later became my classmate at Cheyney University).
In 1964, Cecil, along with the preeminent Charles Bowser, used legal brains and North Philly brawn (where they both were from) to force the Mummers to stop parading up Broad Street in blackface.
And as a criminal defense attorney, Cecil was one of the best who ever did it. He was so much in demand and so busy in court that the City Hall judicial administration specially assigned one particular courtroom for his hundreds of cases. During one stretch, he won an unprecedented 17 “not guilty” verdicts in a row.
Cecil’s greatness in the legal arena was comparable to his greatness in the civic and political arenas.
When he was elected president of the city’s NAACP branch in 1962, he boldly proclaimed in his January 1963 inaugural speech, “We are serving notice that no longer will the plantation system of white men appointing our leaders exist in Philadelphia.”
During his leadership, the local NAACP’s membership increased from 7,000 in 1962 to 50,000 in the mid-1960s. He served as president until 1967 when, due to internal conflicts regarding his “in your face” confrontational style, he was stripped of his power when the national office divided the city’s chapter into three branches, leaving him with the much smaller North Philly branch.
Cecil was elected to City Council’s 5th District position in 1976 and served until 1979 when he was challenged by John Street, who replaced Cecil due mostly to his worsening medical condition.
Cecil Bassett Moore, at the age of 63, became a revered ancestor on Feb. 13, 1979.
But he is resurrected every time a Black attorney pursues Black principle over white profit, every time a Black attorney acts in constructive anger and every time a Black attorney fights the damn system.
Happy 107th birthday Brother Cecil!
Opinion contributor Michael Coard, an attorney and radio host, is a columnist for the Philadelphia Tribune, where this column first appeared. His work appears on Tuesdays on the Capital-Star’s Commentary Page. Readers may follow him on Twitter @MichaelCoard.
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