Was 1964 the most important year in modern Philadelphia history?

I guess the word got out somehow -- that once every few years days, I blog about the history of the 1960s. I'll spare you the backstory, but I had a rare-for-me opportunity to preview a PBS "American Experience" documentary that airs nationally tomorrow (Tuesday) night called "1964." I can report that the film is more than worthy of the cataclysmic year that it chronicles, a moment that -- if my fading math abilities serve me correctly -- happened exactly 50 years ago.

"1964" -- both the movie and the actual year -- certainly struck a chord with me, as someone who was 5 then and turns 55 in a few days. For me, I carry a small handful of cherished memories of those months when -- jolted by the JFK assassination in November 1963 -- I realized there was an outside world...someone giving me my first Beatles 45 (although I don't recall if I had a record player), seeing the Supremes on "Ed Sullivan," and (yes, I really remember this) arguing with a kindergarten classmate over the presidential election. I was for LBJ...surprised?

I wish I remembered more -- 1964 was what one might have called (before Malcolm Gladwell ruined the words, like he ruins everything) a tipping point. If you want a metaphor, think about the Beatles' foppish hair, long but perfectly groomed, follicles waiting to explode in the full bloom of revolution, That hair, and that music, was radical compared to what came before, yet sheepishly tame compared to what was coming next. A highlight of "1964" is the Beatles in Miami Beach and their madcap meeting with the then-heavyweight contender, then named Cassius Clay. They are all rebels all just days away from a finding a cause -- Clay about to beat Sonny Liston and become the Muslim named Muhammad Ali who beat the draft, the Beatles in the first mile of their magical mystery tour.

Other highlights of "1964" are only clear with 20/14 hindsight -- the popularity of Betty Friedan's "The Feminine Mystique" (published the year before) igniting the slow fuse of women's liberation, and the conservative crusade of Barry Goldwater that seemed a dismal failure at the time but inspired Ronald Reagan, leading to the myths and legends that now animate the conservatives of the 21st Century. But other moments that year carried the weight of a sledgehammer -- like the murder of three voting rights activists outside of a different Philadelphia, the one in Mississippi.

Interestingly, I don't believe Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, is mentioned anywhere in the long PBS documentary. That might lead you to conclude that here in the Delaware Valley, 1964 was a pretty insignificant year. You'd be dead wrong. I'd argue that -- again, with the helpful aid of a rearview mirror -- what happened here exactly 50 years ago marked the most important period in modern Philadelphia history, the most pivotal at least since the 1876 triumphalism of a young nation's 100th birthday and its then flowering Industrial Revolution.

The biggest events are always the ones you don't notice at the time, and in the case of Philadelphia that was de-industrialization. The Industrial Revolution was dying -- factories were already shutting down and people were moving to the suburbs, as the city's population had already peaked over 2 million in 1950. Upheaval brings unrest, and in Philadelphia, as in many other cities, the tinderbox was race.

This shouldn't have surprised anyone -- the years and months leading up to 1964 contained many warnings like 1963's "Folcroft Incident," a mini-riot that erupted when the first black family tried to move into an all-white development just outside the city. As noted here a couple of weeks ago, New Year's Day 1964 set the tone for this remarkable year when the threat of protests and then a court order brought the end of the embarrassing tradition of blackface in the Mummer's Parade.

The big picture was this: Black Philadelphians -- confined to ghettos like the stretch of North Philadelphia known then as "The Jungle" and with powerful complaints about police brutality and a lack of city services and job opportunities -- were ready to explode. White Philadelphians, complaining of social unrest and crime, were getting out, accelerating a period of so-called "white flight."

The coil was so tightly wound that it didn't take much to blow everything up on the hot summer night of August 28, 1964 -- just a police traffic stop at 23rd and Columbia, a scuffle, a gathering crowd and a false rumor that cops had killed a pregnant black woman. While Philadelphia was "lucky:" in the sense that no one was killed in three nights of rioting, thus nothing compared to the apocalypse that was coming to Watts, Detroit and Newark, some 225 stores were burned or looted, while 341 people were injured and 775 were arrested.

The smokey, trash-strewn hangover from those three nights lasted for decades. The reform political era of good government epitomized by Richardson Dilworth also went up in flames; brass-knuckle ward politics with racial overtones was in, and the disastrous "law-and-order" regime of future police chief and mayor Frank Rizzo was on the rise, as black empowerment waited in the wings. (Unrelated but worth noting, 1964 brought the creation of another Philadelphia political legend 150 miles to the south, with the Warren Commission's "single bullet theory" and its architect, the future DA and senator Arlen Specter.)

There was something else that may have vanished in the haze of Columbia Avenue, a Philadelphia World Series. As noted brilliantly by local historian William Kashatus yet forgotten to today's fan, the 1964 Philadelphia riot, and the tension and unrest that hung in the air at North Philly's decrepit Connie Mack Stadium*, weighed heavily on the team's rookie slugger Dick (now, then "Richie") Allen, spurring on a slump that may have had a lot more to do with the Phillies' legendary end of season collapse than the Reds' Chico Ruiz' iconic steal of home (pictured at top.)

Is it trivial to mention a baseball collapse in the same breath as a bloody urban riot? Yes...and arguably no. When you look at Philadelphia and our civic image, to ourselves and to the outside world, it is the sports fan that has come to define us -- cursed, often angry, but with a burning passion to finally yank that chip off the city's sore shoulder and smash it into a million pieces. And the modern Philadelphia sports fan was baptized in the summer of 1964.

Look out your window right now, my fellow Philadelphian, and you might see the sleek reflection of the Comcast Center, or the neon glow of Citizens Bank Park and the Linc in the foggy distance. But listen to the voices on the wind -- what people are saying about our politics, our civic pride, even our sports teams, coming from the speaker of your car radio or even right here, right now on the Internet -- and the echoes of what went down 50 years ago are inescapable.

Why is it worth talking about 1964? A better question for Philadelphia might be this: Is 1964 over yet?

Below, your moment of zen: The Beatles performing at the Philadelphia Convention Hall from the fall of 1964.* Fixed from earlier version to reflect name change in the 1950s...Shibe Park is burnished into my brain after writing this.

Blogger's note: Here's another question...is 2014 over yet? I'm ready for a vacation, so I'll see you again on Sunday.

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