The Philadelphia Race Riot


Minor arrest leads to massive riot

The story of the year in 1964 was race in America.  Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act, Martin Luthur King won the Nobel Peace Prize, the racist poll tax was outlawed by a Constitutional Amendment…..and race riots destroyed parts of several major cities.

One of the cities hardest hit was Philadelphia.  On August 28, 1964, a riot started on the corner of 23rd Street and Columbia Ave in North Philadelphia.  It would last two days and damage large swaths of the city.

Brutality in the Philadelphia Police Department had been the impetus behind several changes in the Department designed to lessen the use of force and improve race relations.  In the days before the riot, the Philadelphia Tribune ran several articles on police brutality. The narratives often resulted in white policemen being brought up on charges of brutality against blacks, only to be later acquitted.

These issues caused a minor traffic stop to escalate into a large-scale riot.  Cops stopped a car parked in the intersection of 23rd Street and Columbia Avenue.  The occupants were a man and woman in the middle of a heated domestic dispute.  As the cops struggled to arrest the man driving the car, several bystanders got physically involved in trying to prevent the arrest.   All arrested parties were whisked away to the local precinct. 

But the crowd didn’t disperse as usual.  Rumors spread that the cops had beaten a pregnant black woman.  The story soon included the lie that the woman had died and that the police had murdered her. 

A window was broken…a door broken….a fire started.  And then another and another.

Soon looting was occurring and fires targeted white owned businesses.  Police were told to stand down and isolate the problem, but that never works.  By the time the police were sent it to quell the disturbance, it was beyond their control.  Rioting and looting spread and could not be curbed.

The riots continued for days before petering out on August 30th after almost 1,000 people had been arrested.  Although no one died, hundreds were injured.  There were over 200 stores and buildings destroyed.  Race relations in the city were further damaged by the riots and the divide between blacks and whites widened. 

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