A Brief History
On August 28, 1964, the City of Philadelphia erupted into a race riot when the predominantly African American neighborhoods of North Philadelphia in the Columbia Avenue area broke out into a full blown riot between the police and African American residents that had long complained of police brutality. The riot, which resulted in 341 injuries and nearly 800 arrests, had been preceded by a concerted effort by the City of Philadelphia and its police department to repair and reinforce rapport between the police and Black residents. Apparently, those efforts came up short!
As the United States in 2020 is going through the spasms of race related protests and even riots against alleged police brutality directed against citizens of African descent, the scenario of failed efforts by city authorities and police commanders to improve race relations has gone on over and over in the United States, seemingly like a bad version of Groundhog Day (a reference to the 1993 movie in which a reporter is forced to live the same day over and over). Back in 1964, despite efforts to increase racial integration and the absence of official, codified, segregation in the North, including Pennsylvania, the fact on the ground was that 400,000 of Philadelphia’s 600,00 Black residents were largely concentrated in the North Philadelphia area. Other major US cities at the time were also de facto segregated in a similar manner.
Many instances of alleged police brutality had been given considerable play both in the media and by Civil Rights activists, and the City of Philadelphia and their police took steps to alleviate the tension. Police supervisors assigned each 2-officer patrol car a White and a Black officer in an effort to allay African American fears that racist White cops would tend to treat them more harshly. Additionally, a civilian review board to investigate allegations of police brutality and misconduct was established, a common response over the decades of allegations of police brutality. The latter measure was in response to community displeasure that the great majority of police brutality allegations and investigations had resulted in the exoneration of the police accused, by investigators that came from the police department. Unfortunately, neither the Black & White patrol scheme nor the civilian review board had erased mistrust of the police among the African American community in Philadelphia.
The riot was triggered by a domestic disturbance between an African American woman and her boyfriend while driving in a car. The woman stopped the car in the middle of the street to conduct the argument, blocking the flow of traffic. A police car at the scene, complete with 1 White and 1 Black officer, attempted to intervene, but the police became embroiled in the argument! The distraught woman was ultimately placed under arrest and did not go peacefully. A bystander attempted to “rescue” the arrested woman by attacking the police, getting himself arrested as well. The incident should have been over at that point, but a rumor quickly spread that a “pregnant” Black woman had been “beaten to death” by the cops, and the public, outraged at the false information, took to the streets in an angry display of violence that lasted from the evening of August 28, 1964 over the next couple days before peace had finally been restored. During the riot, the police were instructed to mostly avoid confrontation with the rioters, basically allowing the mob to loot and burn much of the neighborhood, especially White owned businesses. Many Black clergy members and community leaders pleaded with the public for calm and for an end to the violence, but Black Muslims and other militant Black organizations urged the rioters on. By the end of the riots, about 225 stores had been destroyed or heavily damaged.
The Philadelphia Race Riot of 1964 did little to resolve any ill will between the police and the African American community, nor did the 3 days of violence create any improvement in the lives of the Black citizens. In fact, as has often been the case in riots where businesses are burned and looted, many of the businesses never reopened and the neighborhoods were deprived of many of their convenient shopping opportunities. Sadly, similar events continue to happen today in the United States, nearly 6 decades after the Philadelphia Riot! (See our many other articles about riots.)
Question for students (and subscribers): What can the police do to gain the trust of the African American community? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
Your readership is much appreciated!
For more information, please see…
Collins, Ann. The Dawn Broke Hot and Somber: U.S. Race Riots of 1964. Praeger, 2018.
Wasko, Arthur. From Race Riot To Sit-In: 1919 and the 1960’s, A Study in the Connections Between Conflict and Violence. Doubleday, 1966.
The featured image in this article, a photograph by .RGB. of George Floyd protests in Philadelphia, is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license. This image was originally posted to Flickr by .RGB. at https://flickr.com/photos/46437876@N06/49982324601. It was reviewed on by FlickreviewR 2 and was confirmed to be licensed under the terms of the cc-by-2.0.