Tomorrow, Saturday, Feb. 22, is the birthday of a great American who raised his voice against tyranny and oppression and led a people into a new dawn of freedom.
Of course, we’re talking about Octavius V. Catto, one of the unsung heroes of the first Civil Rights Movement — the one that had a civil war in its middle.
He is unsung no more, though, for 2014 is shaping up to be his year. On his birthday, a jubilee of spirituals and praise at Mother Bethel A.M.E. Church in Society Hill, the nation’s oldest historically black church, kicks off a six-month long festival celebrating Catto’s life and legacy organized by the Mann Music Center and culminating in a July concert at the Mann that will feature a new orchestral work, “The Passion of Octavius Catto,” composed by Philadelphia native Uri Caine and performed by The Philadelphia Orchestra.
And this spring, a committee headed by Councilman James Kenney will announce that it has raised the funds needed to erect a statue of Catto outside City Hall. The announcement will mark the successful conclusion of a campaign launched in 2007 with the support of Jack Straw, the retired head of the Abraham Lincoln Foundation at the Union League of Philadelphia, and other prominent citizens.
What accounts for this sudden explosion of interest in Catto? Actually, it’s not sudden — it’s the fruit of seeds planted more than a decade ago by a number of individuals.