‘Gathering storm’: The Philly riots of ’64

“What Watson heard that August night – exactly 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 roving bands of looters methodically went from the butcher to the liquor store to the appliance store and to every merchant in between, smashing in 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 4th biggest city. By the time the shards of glass were swept and the sirens stopped echoing, many folks – both 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 but for much of the city, a giant tipping point. Amid the chaos of three days on Columbia Avenue, you can see the birth of the two social movements that would come to dominate Philadelphia for much of the next half-century.

One was the push for black political empowerment, as African-Americans abandoned timid cooperation with the white political machine and forged their own path, on the streets and later at the ballot box. The other was the quest from the white working class for “law and order,” as a deputy commissioner named Frank Rizzo took control of the riot squad, then the police department, then City Hall.”

Read more about this history here.

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