Closed factories, substandard housing, high unemployment, neglected schools and indifference from City Hall, high crime, racial profiling and incidents of police brutality. A feeling among black people that they didn't have a voice in American society, simmering in the middle of a long hot summer.
The New York Times described it as a place where children "play in narrow streets,between cars, on sidewalks and in junk piles, rubble where homes once stood, and in vacant, battered houses, awaiting the wrecker's crane."
Fifty years ago this summer, what was then Columbia Avenue -- later renamed Cecil B. Moore Avenue -- and the surrounding blocks erupted in mayhem and violence. The three nights of rioting and looting that took place from Aug. 28-30 of 1964 only resulted in one fatality -- an outcome that would not be repeated in later, bloodier upheavals in Watts, Detroit, Newark and elsewhere. But the North Philadelphia riots were still, clearly, a huge turning point in the city's history -- an event with ripples and consequences that are deeply felt today.
It was also a turning point that spread -- as is so often the case -- with a misunderstanding. On Aug. 28, 1964, police responded to a report of a broken down Buick at 22nd and Columbia with a couple -- Odessa and Rush Bradford -- quarreling inside. Odessa Bradford scuffled with one of the officers (both she and the cop were black) and a crowd gathered. Soon, a false rumor spread through North Philadelphia that a pregnant woman had been killed by police, and a mob erupted.
Efforts by black community leaders -- including the street's future namesake Cecil B. Moore, who was then head of the Philadelphia NAACP -- to calm the young rioters were futile. When the smoke settled, more than 600 stores had been looted, vandalized, or worse, and roughly that many people had been taken into police custody. About 340 people were reported injured -- about 100 of them were police officers. But the biggest impact was on Philadelphia's psyche, and on its future. So-called "white flight" and urban blight accelerated dramatically in the years following the riots...but so did the movement for black political empowerment.
Was what happened in the streets of North Philadelphia the stirrings of an insurrection, what Martin Luther King called (of urban riots, generally) "the language of the unheard." Or was it an immoral descent into lawlessness and chaos, an event that the FBI in 1964 described as "a senseless attack on all constituted authority, without purpose or object"?
Most importantly, 50 years later, have we gotten over it? In August, I hope to tell that story on the pages of the Daily News -- both memories from those chaotic nights, how it afterward affected the lives of the people who were there, as well as the course of the city. But to do a good job, I may need your help.
Were you there? Were you one of the hundreds of cops and other first-responders who responded to the center of the inferno? Were you one of the many who was swept up in the mayhem, or one of the ones who -- like Cecil B. Moore -- pleaded for peace? Or did you look out in fear and apprehension? Or has an older family member shared such a story? If so, I want to hear from you? Drop me a note -- it's firstname.lastname@example.org -- or call me at the newspaper, 215-854-2957.
Over the next 18 months, Philadelphia will pick a new mayor and try to figure out where we're going. But that's hard to do unless we figure out where we've been.