The Philadelphia race riot of August 1964

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Police activity during Columbia Avenue riots, on Aug. 31, 1964. (Albert Wagner, Inquirer archives via Temple University Libraries)

The Philadelphia race riot of August 1964 was one of the first in the civil rights era.

It took place in the predominantly African-American neighborhoods of North Philadelphia from August 28-30, at a time when tensions between black residents and police had been escalating for several months over several well-publicized allegations of police brutality.

The unrest began after the car of a black woman named Odessa Bradford stalled at 23rd Street and Columbia Avenue on August 28, 1964 - exactly one year after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech from the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. Bradford got into an argument with two police officers, one black and the other white, about the stalled car and her inability to move it.

As the argument wore on, a large crowd assembled in the area. The officers then physically removed Bradford from the car. A man tried to come to Bradford's aid by attacking the police officers; both he and Bradford were arrested.

Rumors then spread throughout North Philadelphia that a pregnant black woman had been beaten to death by white police officers. Later that evening, and throughout the next two days, angry mobs looted and burned mostly white-owned businesses in North Philadelphia, mainly along Columbia Avenue. Outnumbered, the police response was to withdraw from the area rather than aggressively confront the rioters. Although no one was killed, 341 people were injured, 774 people were arrested and 225 stores were damaged or destroyed in the three days of rioting.

Business activity in North Philadelphia declined even further after the riots, as many of the damaged or destroyed stores never re-opened for business. The riots also helped to facilitate the political rise to power of Frank Rizzo, who favored more punitive approaches to crime.

In 1987, Columbia Avenue between Front and 33rd Streets was renamed Cecil B. Moore Avenue after the influential and often controversial Civil Rights leader. Moore has been regarded as a pacifying figure who helped quell the rioting.

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