1964 Philadelphia race riot
The Philadelphia race riot took place in the predominantly black neighborhoods of North Philadelphia from August 28 to August 30, 1964. Tensions between black residents of the city and police had been escalating for several months over several well-publicized allegations of police brutality.
This riot was one of the first in the civil rights era and followed race riots in Rochester, New York and New York City.
In 1964, North Philadelphia was the city's center of African American culture, and home to 400,000 of the city's 600,000 black residents. The Philadelphia Police Department had tried to improve its relationship with the city's black community assigning police to patrol black neighborhoods in teams of one black and one white officer per squad car and having a civilian review board to handle cases of police brutality.
Despite the improvement attempts of the Philadelphia Police Department, racial tensions had been high in Philadelphia over the issue of police brutality. The Philadelphia Tribune, the city’s black newspaper, ran several articles on police brutality which often resulted in white policemen who were brought up on charges of brutality being acquitted. The summer of 1964 however was at the peak of the civil rights movement with rioting breaking out in black areas of other northern cities such as New York, Rochester, Jersey City and Elizabeth caused by incidents relating to police brutality against black citizens.
The unrest began on the evening of August 28 after a black woman named Odessa Bradford got into an argument with two police officers, one black, Robert Wells, and the other white, John Hoff, after her car stalled at 23rd Street and Columbia Avenue. Because Bradford's car had stalled, and she was unable to drive it, an argument between her and the two officers ensued. The officers then tried to physically remove Bradford from the car. As the argument went on, a large crowd assembled in the area. A man tried to come to Bradford's aid by attacking the police officers at the scene, both he and Bradford were arrested.
Rumors then spread throughout North Philadelphia that a pregnant black woman had been beaten to death by white police officers. Later that evening, and throughout the next two days, angry mobs looted and burned mostly white-owned businesses in North Philadelphia, mainly along Columbia Avenue. Outnumbered, the police response was to withdraw from the area rather than aggressively confront the rioters.
Although no one was killed, 341 people were injured, 774 people were arrested and 225 stores were damaged or destroyed in the three days of rioting. Some of the tension was attributable to religion, with Black Muslims and black nationalists pitted against Black Baptist ministers who called for calm.
Business activity in North Philadelphia declined even further after the riots, as many of the damaged or destroyed stores never re-opened for business. The riots also helped to facilitate the political rise to power of Frank Rizzo, who favored more punitive approaches to crime.
In 1987, Columbia Avenue between Front and 33rd Streets was renamed Cecil B. Moore Avenue after the influential and often controversial Civil Rights leader. Although his role was limited, Moore has been regarded as a pacifying figure who helped quell the rioting. While present-day Cecil B. Moore Avenue is still largely impoverished, it has witnessed redevelopment, including expansion of the Temple University campus, such that the area around Broad Street is much more integrated with a mostly diverse student population.
- Nicole Maurantonio, “Standing By: Police Paralysis, Race, and the 1964 Philadelphia Riot,” Journalism History, 38 (Summer 2012), 110–21.
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- Courtney Ann Lyons, "Burning Columbia Avenue: Black Christianity, Black Nationalism, and 'Riot Liturgy' in the 1964 Philadelphia Race Riot," Pennsylvania History (2010) 77#3 pp 324-348.