Friday, June 14, 2024



Race and exclusion in Philadelphia: Snapshots from the last 100 years – Part II

Frank Rizzo. (Photo via April 10, 2019 Category: FeaturedLongPurpose
Read Part I of this story,  covering the span from 1910 to the 1950s, which was published here March 27.


Six years later and a bit farther south, just to the west of Philadelphia International Airport, the Delaware County community of Folcroft produced an angry mob of 1,500 as Horace and Sarah Baker entered their new home. They chanted, “Two, Four, Six, Eight, We don’t want to integrate,” broke all of the house’s  windows with rocks, and hurled a molotov cocktail into the second story, starting a small fire.

Martin Luther King, Jr., had just delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech during the March on Washington.  Some white families had been supportive of the Myers family in Levittown; some were supportive of the Bakers in Folcroft; and when the Bakers left Folcroft they found themselves in a diverse, accepting, and supportive Mt. Airy. But the structural trends and power continued to point against Black communities, families, and individuals. In 1967, Frank Rizzo became Commissioner of the Philadelphia Police Department.

The structural trends and power continued to point against Black communities, families, and individuals.

As  reported by Vice, Commissioner Rizzo’s popularity split along racial lines.  Shortly after being appointed, Rizzo led a phalanx of officers to a school administration building where a crowd of students was protesting in favor of a Black history curriculum. What happened next is in dispute, or at least the precise wording is: Local newspapers reported that Rizzo told cops, whom he suggested were being attacked, to “get their black asses.”

The results were brutal, with dozens of students beaten in what observers described as a police riot. “A cop chased two black girls right outside of the window of the administration building where we were looking out,” the school district’s then-public relations manager remembered years later, “and just proceeded to beat the crap out of them with a nightstick.” … In 1967, his approval rating stood at 84 percent…; after the showdown at the school, letters to the Philadelphia Inquirer were two to one in favor of Rizzo, while letters to the African-American paper, the Tribune, were three to one against.

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In the early seventies, white residents of South Philadelphia organized against a proposed public housing project in Whitman, in the southeastern corner of the city. Their protests, which included mothers with children inhabiting the construction site to block bulldozers, were framed in terms of home values. But the prospective tenants were majority Black, and a police officer present at a protest overheard, “We don’t want no n******.”

Then campaigning for mayor, Rizzo promised to shut the Whitman project down if elected. Community Legal Services, at the time a young civil rights organization, decided to go after Rizzo over the disparate impact Whitman Park’s cancellation would have on Philadelphia’s Black population. Testimony during the trial revealed that Rizzo told the head of the city’s housing authority that public housing tenants were almost all Black and therefore white neighborhoods shouldn’t be forced to accept them.

The decision in the case found that the City of Philadelphia acted with racially discriminatory purpose in halting the Whitman Park Townhouse Project. The project eventually moved forward, but not without several more years of resistance. A Black Vietnam War Veteran who lived in the neighborhood told The Philadelphia Daily News that people had started throwing bricks and beer bottles through his windows. He said, “Look, I’ve lived in cities all over the world, including some southern towns. But I never had any problems like this until I came back home.”


Rizzo was Mayor until 1980. His legacy continues to reverberate through the city and the region.

The Frank Rizzo statue, guarded by police officers after a night of protests.

The Frank Rizzo statue, guarded by police officers after a night of protests over its location, in August 2017. (Photo by; image has been cropped)

By the fall of 1984, Philadelphia had its first Black mayor, Wilson Goode. Mayor Goode was in charge when City Police and Fire cooperated in a standoff with the Black radical activist group MOVE. That standoff culminated in a fire that killed 11 individuals in the MOVE house, and wiped out three city blocks.

Eleven years later, a Federal jury found the city used excessive force and violated MOVE’s constitutional protection against unreasonable search and seizure when the authorities dropped a bomb from a police helicopter onto the group’s fortified row house. As revealed in the documentary film, Let the Fire Burn, in testimony following the bombing, a white police officer spoke about picking up a Black child fleeing the fire. In the days that followed, someone wrote “n****r lover” on the officer’s police locker.

During this era, the Elmwood neighborhood in Southwest Philadelphia was largely white. And groups of hundreds of angry whites protested outside of the homes of a mixed-race couple and a Black family as they arrived in the neighborhood. Curfews were imposed and small groups were prevented from congregating in the streets together. As police policed that neighborhood and others around the city, they played their parts in the most recent surge in mass incarceration and criminalization. The Equal Justice Initiative reports that the US jail and prison population was 200,000 in 1972 and has surged to 2.2 million today.

1990s – present

The surge in incarceration disproportionately impacted Black and brown Philadelphians throughout the ’80s, ’90s, 2000s, and through to today.  The US incarcerates Black people at six times the rate of white people. In Pennsylvania, where the incarceration rate is actually higher than in the US as a whole, Black people are incarcerated at a rate nine times higher than is the case for whites. Earlier this decade Philadelphia had the highest incarceration rate among the 10 largest US cities, prompting then-mayoral candidate Jim Kenney to run in part on the promise of reducing the city’s jail population.

Before Kenney’s candidacy and since, activists and organizations have been documenting the effects this extraordinary incarceration rate has on Philadelphia. North Philly native El Sawyer was incarcerated  between the ages of 17 and 25 for a drug-related offense. Following his release, he teamed up with other filmmakers to produce a film that chronicles the invisible forces that keep most formerly incarcerated people in a seemingly unending cycle of incarceration.

Following in activists’, foundations’, and other elected officials’ footsteps, Philadelphia DA Larry Krasner has become the symbol of the effort to make the City Government a partner in de-carcerating America. But the realities of work opportunities for individuals with criminal records, and Pennsylvania’s strict juvenile sentencing laws ensure that the cumulative effects of the last few decades of mass incarceration will influence communities for decades to come. Ban the Box, ending cash bail, and other movements are fundamental in what will be a decades-long effort to redress the structural violences that result from mass incarceration.

In housing, redlining and resistance to Black individuals and families in neighborhoods has systematically undermined Black communities’ capacities to save money over generations. Simultaneously, Money Matters in Education Justice, a report by the Education Law Center, reveals that Pennsylvania is 46th in the nation for state contributions to local school systems.

Pennsylvania is 46th in the nation for state contributions to local school systems.

As Philadelphia’s Gene Demby has amply covered for NPR’s Code Switch, housing segregation is in everything. Where home values have been systematically reduced and capacity for saving undermined, families face higher tax rates to generate less total funds for local schools. If the students in these schools get into trouble, they are disproportionately likely to be incarcerated. Until recent campaigns like Ban the Box, incarceration — even for minor offenses — has often meant a life sentence away from sustained employment opportunities.

Together, this is a superstructure of systemic inequity. Its historical depth and complex intersections must not lead us to shrug and acknowledge, “it is what it is.” Rather, it is our shared duty — as persons, as humans, as critical global citizens — to co-create communities, a city, a region, and a world that redresses these historic wrongs and re-imagines what’s possible for all of us now and moving forward.

In class, in our lives as independent citizens, and through our work at the Center for Peace and Global Citizenship, we’re fortunate to work with and learn from scores of Philadelphia individuals, collectives, and organizations who are creating a more just and sustainable region today. We’ll share a bit of the vision(s) they’ve shared with us, in a later post on the many routes to social change.

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