That long hot summer of rage

Posted: August 28, 2014

RICHARD WATSON still remembers the moment he woke up.

It was Aug. 28, 1964 - a Friday night wrapped in a humid layer of late-summer heat. Watson, 18 and a budding art student, could have been out on what folks called "Jump Street" or "The Ave," a thriving commercial strip of Columbia Avenue in the heart of North Philly where weekend crowds scurried between movies at the Rex or the Liberty and a neon string of pool halls and taverns. But as midnight approached, Watson was simply trying to get some sleep, a couple of blocks away from the strip in his family's apartment at 22nd and Master.

Then something approached, like a gathering storm.

"I heard a distant sound, like a rally of noise and people - like when people fight, with cheering and jeering, and it seemed far away," recalled Watson, now 68, gray-haired and soft-spoken. "Then I heard breaking glass. Then I heard more breaking glass, and it sounded like it was on my block!

"That's when I said, 'Whoa, what's going on here?' Then I heard the sirens."

What Watson heard that August night - 50 years ago tomorrow - were the first stirrings of the worst outbreak of civil unrest in modern Philadelphia history, a full-blown riot that lasted for three hellish nights as bands of looters methodically went from the butcher to the liquor store to the appliance store and to every merchant in between, smashing windows and running down Ridge Avenue with TV sets or even sofas on their backs, while others rained down bricks and rooftop debris on the outnumbered cops.

They say that numbers tell the story. But in the case of the 1964 North Philadelphia riot, the cold statistics - 339 people hurt, including 100 police, hundreds arrested, at least one man killed and property damage that would be $23 million in today's dollars - don't really show the impact on the psyche of what was then America's fourth biggest city. By the time the shards of glass were swept away and the sirens faded, many folks - black and white - would never look at Philadelphia, or each other, quite the same.

It was a political and moral awakening, albeit a grim one, not just for Richard Watson; a giant tipping point. Amid the chaos of three days on Columbia Avenue came the birth of the two social movements, black and white, that would dominate the city for much of the next half-century.

In 1987, the city chucked the name of Columbia Avenue and renamed it Cecil B. Moore Avenue, in honor of the local NAACP president who tried and failed to stop the riot. But rebranding couldn't paper over the flight of dozens of stores and small businesses, mostly white-owned, that boarded up in the weeks, months and years that followed the riot - leaving holes that remain.

Today at ground zero, 22nd Street and Cecil B. Moore, there is a bizarre vibe, as if time stopped that Friday night. There is no evidence that shoppers once walked these streets, once redolent with fresh vegetables on pushcarts or a fresh ocean catch glistening in store windows. Instead, buildings with rusted-out tin facades and plywood windows alternate like moldy chess pieces with weedy empty lots. It's impossible not to wonder: What the hell happened here?

Broken down and 'blasted'

On Aug. 28, 1964, one year to the day after the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech, news of civil rights commingled with obsessive coverage of the Beatles, due in just 10 days, and of the seemingly World Series-bound Phillies.

But Rush and Odessa Bradford, a 30-something African-American couple living in the crowded heart of North Philadelphia, didn't really care about any of that.

They were just trying to get home that steamy Friday night. But now their hulky boat of a maroon Buick was broken down at the worst possible spot - the bustling intersection of 22nd and Columbia - and at the worst possible time: 9:45 p.m., when the movie theaters were unloading and the nightclub-goers and pool sharks were hitting "The Ave" to start the weekend.

To make matters worse, the Bradfords were drunk - "blasted," Odessa told a reporter years later - and having a violent quarrel right there in the front seat. It wasn't long before two cops, Officers John Hoff and Robert Wells, pulled up in a "red ace" - one of Philadelphia's distinctive bright-red police cruisers.

In 1964, Philadelphia's police force was overwhelmingly white, though integrated. Often in black neighborhoods, a patrol car had one white officer and one black. Wells, an African-American, got out of the cruiser and tried to calm down Odessa Bradford, seated at the steering wheel.

It didn't work. Instead, she started yelling and flailing at the police officer. Then a 41-year-old man named James Mettles broke from the crowd and punched the white officer, Hoff, in the face. As police arrested Odessa Bradford and Mettles, bottles, rocks and even a few bricks rained down. When two dozen more cops raced to the scene, things seem to be calming down.

But peace was short-lived. In 1964 in North Philadelphia, very few homes had air-conditioning units and many did not have TV sets. In late-summer heat waves, residents spent long nights outdoors, sometimes dazed by the oppressive temperatures. The "Facebook" of 1964 was a crowded stoop, while "Twitter" was the short bursts of gossip shouted out at the street corner.

On this Friday night, the microbursts of information - misinformation, mostly - came from the likes of Raymond Hall, a 25-year-old man described in a postriot report as an "agitator." He stood a block away, at 23rd and Columbia, yelling at anyone who would listen: "A pregnant black woman's been beaten and shot to death by a white policeman."

The fake rumors inflamed people. By 11 p.m., reporter William P. Naulty of the Bulletin arrived to find "bricks, bottles and stones raining down." As Friday night turned to Saturday morning, the riot zone expanded across roughly 100 blocks in the heart of North Philly - roving gangs hurling trash cans through store windows, damaging police cruisers and racing down the streets with their loot.

Early Saturday morning, press accounts said one of the leaders of the unrest was a 23-year-old female secretary for a local charity who stood on an overturned refrigerator and shouted down Moore, the NAACP leader.

"We don't need no civil rights," she screamed. "We can take care of ourselves!"

"People were letting out all of the frustrations," W. Curtis Thomas - then a 16-year-old Edison High School student - recalled recently. "All of the frustration - all of the anger and the hopelessness - was just let out."

'What do you got in your pocket?'

Thomas' family, like many of his neighbors, had come from the segregated South after World War II seeking a better life, but reality proved complicated.

By the late 1950s and early '60s, the industrial revolution was winding down - and factory jobs were scarce. Yet North Philadelphia grew more crowded - thanks largely to government "slum clearance" elsewhere in the city and the rapid growth of the Temple University campus in the heart of the neighborhood.

Thomas and his family moved again and again - 13 times in all. "We would come down in the morning and there would be a 'reassign' [foreclosure notice] on the front door," he recalled.

A 1964 report on poverty found that incomes in the riot zone were 30 percent or more below the citywide average, while the jobless rate was two to three times higher, amid high dropout rates. The neighborhood had fewer parks and libraries than elsewhere in the city, but more taprooms.

Some in the media called it "The Jungle."

That offends people who grew up there and never heard anyone call it that. They called it home. They recall kids exploring on bicycles or roller skates, parents shopping in a thriving commercial district that included a supermarket, and older residents keeping an eye on things.

But teenagers like Thomas and Watson also remember two huge hurdles: the gangs and the cops.

Youth gangs held sway on nearly every block.

"When I went to Edison in 1962, '63, I could not get in without fighting . . . or kissing the two lions on the door" - an act of capitulation, Thomas explained. "I had to fight for 16 days straight to get into Edison, and get through at least four different gangs."

The police were a different story. Like most young blacks, Watson said, he was stopped and frisked by officers constantly.

"They would harass you and ask, 'What do you got in your pocket?' which was usually nothing because I didn't have a dime," he recalled. "But they would come over and pat you down, and ask, 'Where are you coming from?' I was pretty much compliant."

He said he watched other kids mouth off - and get slammed against the red door of the cop cruiser.

Increasingly, blacks in northern cities saw scenes on TV like the May 1963 protest marches in Birmingham, Ala., when city officials backed down on segregation after marchers led by King withstood Sheriff Bull Connor's police dogs and fire hoses. African-Americans in Philadelphia wondered when their grievances would be addressed.

"There was also a growing sense of frustration at nonviolence," said Matthew Countryman, a Philadelphia native and University of Michigan associate professor of history and American culture, who in 2006 authored the definitive Up South: Civil Rights and Black Power in Philadelphia.

The killing of four black girls in the bombing of a Birmingham Sunday school in 1963 was a turning point. "People said, 'Martin Luther King said turn the other cheek, and now they're killing our children.' "

In October 1963, cops put down the early stages of a riot on North Philadelphia's Susquehanna Avenue when a 24-year-old black man was shot and killed by a white cop - but fears of a bigger conflagration only grew.

When those worries were realized 10 months later, city officials looked to black community leaders like Moore to stop the looting. What they didn't realize was the black establishment was losing its grip on the neighborhood.

'A chance to get these things'

It was 3:45 a.m. on Saturday when Moore arrived in the heart of the unrest on Columbia Avenue. Ironically, he'd been at the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, where another civil-rights drama had taken place - as delegates tried and failed to find a compromise to seat some of a mostly black delegation of activists from Mississippi's "Freedom Summer." Now, Moore found hundreds of people out in the predawn gloaming, chanting, "We want freedom!"

"I understand your problems, but this is no way to solve them," he shouted. "It's late. Everybody go home and go to bed."

One woman reportedly shouted back: "Listen, man . . . this is the only time in my life I've got a chance to get these things!"

At one point, young blacks reportedly threw rocks at the NAACP leader. The message was unmistakable, that an age of accommodation with the white power structure was over. Militancy would be the new direction.

Throughout Saturday, a stream of the city's black political and cultural establishment - including Judge Raymond Pace Alexander, the top black elected official, and popular radio DJ Georgie Woods - saw their pleas for calm shouted down. The Rev. Leon Sullivan even called for the National Guard to stop the looting.

On the streets, bare mannequins stripped of clothing lay on the pavement like macabre plastic corpses.

"There was just a lot of glass on the street because there weren't a lot of grates back then, and the windows were smashed," Watson recalled. "Things were just lying in the street, like television sets that people had dropped - it looked like a hurricane had hit."

About two-thirds of the neighborhood businesses were looted. Many of the merchants who were hit hardest were Jewish, sparking a long postriot debate over whether anti-Semitism was a factor. Lenora Berson, in studying the riot for the American Jewish Committee, wrote a couple of years later that "not one eyewitness to the riot recalls the mobs shouting anti-Semitic slogans, although anti-white epithets abounded."

Merchants were devastated, by both the financial loss and by the message the looters were sending.

"It's all gone now, all gone," Sam Nerenblatt, the owner for more than three decades of a dry goods store at 18th and Columbia, told the Daily News.

"Civil rights?" he went on. "Where are my civil rights? My people left the old country to try to get away from things like this. Looting and stealing. Isn't there any law left?"

Nerenblatt said he'd called the 22nd District police station after hearing about the mayhem on Friday night, and was told by the officer on duty there was a "hands-off policy" toward looters.

Berson reported that of the 54 businesses that apparently were not looted at all, only two were not owned by blacks, and one was a Chinese restaurant that had placed a sign, "We are colored too."

Many were asking the same question that store-owner Nerenblatt had wondered: Where were the police? In the wake of the Susquehanna Avenue disturbance in 1963, Commissioner Howard Leary had declared a back-off approach aimed at reducing injuries and deaths, at the expense of more potential property losses.

But things were about to change.

Taking off the badge

This wasn't the job that Mike Chitwood signed up for. He was just 20, a rookie police officer who'd graduated from the Police Academy in April 1964. Now he was on a city bus packed with other young officers headed up North Broad Street to a staging area at the Temple campus, one of hundreds of extra cops called in for the second night of the riot.

"I was scared to death," he recalls today. "I had no idea what a riot even was."

But one thing was clear when Chitwood sat down for the roll call. It was the deputy commissioner - the brash, authority-wielding Frank Rizzo, who was running the show on Day Two.

"He said, 'Stop the looting, stop the rioting, clubs are trump, don't take any crap.' " Mayor James Tate, meanwhile, unearthed an 1850 law that gave him the authority to impose a curfew, and he ordered bars and liquor stores closed in the riot zone.

Rizzo was clearly chafing at Leary's restrictions, and at dawn Saturday, he was spotted in a heated argument with the commissioner. At some later date, he would tell the South Philadelphia Review that Leary was "a gutless bastard."

Chitwood, meanwhile, found himself in a cruiser with three other cops - one of whom told him to remove his hat and his badge. "That's so they don't get your badge number."

For the rest of the day and into Sunday, the rookie officer found himself working with officers and with Fire Department crews to check every roof for people who were throwing bricks - and for feared snipers. It was dangerous work, but the young officer found it exhilarating.

"By the second day, I was into it," Chitwood says today, with an almost embarrassed grin.

In some ways, Saturday night was just as intense as the night before.

A second wave of rioters engaged in what Berson later described as "leapfrog battles" with some 1,800 officers, who were now stationed four to a corner, with some roving through the riot zone on two commandeered city buses and others patrolling North Philly from a helicopter.

The riot ultimately claimed one life: a 21-year-old black man named Robert Green who was shot by police officers after he allegedly lunged with a knife.

Philadelphia's body politic was simply wounded.

'Language of the unheard'

Two years later, King told CBS's Mike Wallace, "I think that we've got to see that a riot is the language of the unheard." But the FBI, in its own postmortem on the Columbia Avenue riot, described it as "a senseless attack on all constituted authority, without purpose or object."

In neighborhoods like South Philly and Oxford Circle, Rizzo became the embodiment of their desire for law and order. Tate named him police commissioner in 1967 and later wrote: "I felt that Rizzo could bring the white working class vote back into the Democratic Party." Indeed, "the Cisco Kid" himself would win election as mayor in 1971 and 1975.

But the Rizzo rise brought an equal and opposite reaction among Philadelphia's African-Americans, led by Cecil B. Moore. While many of the city's black leaders were ashamed by the riot and castigated the looters, Moore - the shout-downs from the throng at 22nd and Columbia still burning in his ears - had other ideas.

"I'm the God-damned boss," Moore told the New York Times that fall, arguing that he spoke for poor and working-class blacks. He accused police of brutality in the riot, calling cops "an inhuman bunch of sadists bent on revenge." In 1965, he worked to channel growing youth radicalism toward the goal of integrating all-white Girard College, a boarding school for orphans in the heart of North Philly.

At the vanguard of the Girard protests in 1965 was the then-19-year-old art student Richard Watson. Radicalized by the events of the prior year, he became a key member of a group that was called the Young Militants, or the Cecil B. Moore Freedom Fighters.

"We felt that we were young enough and vigilant enough to take on some of the opportunities to make a difference - we would not be intimidated," Watson recalled. At the Girard protests - where Rizzo would punch a protester, King would show up to proclaim the 10-foot, stone wall "is like the Berlin Wall."

Integration would come after a three-year battle - Watson was arrested once for drawing sketches of the demonstrations. From then on, images of the struggle for civil rights have become the central theme of Watson's art. Today he is curator of exhibitions at the city's African American Museum.

Other witnesses to the 1964 riot became activists, including Thomas, who worked to quell gang violence in the 1970s and now is a state House member representing part of North Philadelphia. Chitwood is still on the job 50 years later as police chief of Upper Darby. But most other key players - Rizzo, Moore, Bradford, Wells - are gone.

The 1964 riot arguably accelerated the pace of postindustrial blight. Today there are only about one-third as many merchants in the riot zone as 50 years ago. More than half of North Philadelphia's population left, poverty is rampant and a 2008 report said Philadelphia is more residentially segregated than the night the riot started.

But the social pressures that triggered the riots - including a lack of jobs, income inequality, and, perhaps most important, police misconduct and brutality - are still a clear and present danger.

In recent days, the nation watched aghast as the police killing of an unarmed black man in Ferguson, Mo., triggered 10 nights of civil unrest that was met by a shroud of tear gas and heavily armed cops, amid scattered looting.

Could it happen again here? The answer of those who witnessed the furies of 1964 may not be what Philadelphia wants to hear.

"It could definitely happen," Watson said. "There are so many fuses that are exposed."

On Twitter: @Will_Bunch


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