UPDATE: After this column was posted midday on Thursday, the Rizzo statue was vandalized. I strongly condemn that — destruction never solves anything. As before, I hope Mayor Kenney and other civic leaders reach a wise decision on the statue’s fate…the sooner the better.
ORIGINAL POST: As the crowd of more than 1,000 people surged down North Broad Street, a chant slowly began to build. “Rizzo must go! Rizzo must go!” A thin blue line of Philly cops grew thicker as the throng drew closer to City Hall in the August gloaming, and for a second, it was easy to feel as though you were back in 1978, the year when a left-leaning coalition just like this one rose up and defeated a City Charter change that would have allowed the city’s then-controversial and bombastic ex-cop mayor, Frank Rizzo, to seek a third term.
That is, until you looked around and saw the array of iPhone 7s and Galaxy 8s that twinkled in the twilight, recording Wednesday’s “Philly Is Charlottesville” march for sites like Facebook (which surely would have been brimming with anti- and pro-Rizzo screeds had it existed in the old Philadelphia of Dr. J and Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes). Once again, the City of Brotherly Love is deep into a family feud over Frank Rizzo, except this time, many of the marchers harboring visions of pulling down, 1989-Lenin-style, the Bambino’s hulking statue from its Municipal Services Building perch weren’t even born when Rizzo succumbed to a heart attack on the campaign trail in 1991.
The activists — prodded by City Council’s liberal lion, Helen Gym, with a friendly nod so far from Mayor Kenney — say Philadelphia is celebrating an era of police terror and de facto white supremacy when it exalts Rizzo. I came of age during the ’70s — but not here — so I can’t share my personal rose-tinted maybe-a-bigot-but-with-a-heart-of-gold memories of the Rizzo swagger like other writers at this joint. But I’ve met enough African Americans who grew up feeling as though they lived in occupied territory during the ’70s to agree with Gym and the other naysayers. Rizzo’s legacy doesn’t deserve a bronze idol — but it can’t be whitewashed, either, or tossed onto a scrap heap.
There’s a deeper issue here. For a city that depends heavily on historical tourism, the truth is that Philadelphians don’t know much about history — real Philly history. The other day, someone posted an image from the city’s 1944 transit strike, when the wartime federal government ordered SEPTA’s forerunner to promote eight blacks to positions like motorman and conductor — and the white workforce walked off the job, crippling the city at a time when local defense plants were critical for defeating the Nazis and imperial Japan. Several people on Twitter told me they had never heard of this and were shocked to learn of it. And yet so much of what Philadelphia still struggles with today — from persistent labor discrimination to the “white flight” that coincided with integration — is rooted in episodes like this.
In 2017, we want our schools to produce graduates who aren’t just good future workers but also good, informed (and voting) citizens. But to get there — and to really ponder how the Cradle of Liberty came to be the state with the most unequal education funding, for example — our kids will need to handle the truth about a past that includes much more racism and, yes, white supremacy, than we care to admit.
Philadelphia is a history marketing machine — as long as it’s mostly on our terms. The new Museum of the American Revolution is the latest showpiece of Philadelphia’s legacy in the fight for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness that saw both the Declaration of Independence (whose author was the original “Philly is Charlottesville“) and the U.S. Constitution spring from our mean cobblestone streets over 13 remarkable years in the late 18th century. It’s a story with valor and virtue that rings out like the clanging of our great Liberty Bell.
But that story line already starts to show cracks before the Liberty Bell’s last public ringing in 1846 — thanks largely to conflicts between the pursuit of happiness and discrimination against immigrants as well as a growing black population. No one would expect Philadelphia’s tourism marketing machine to put out material saying, “Come explore where white rioters burned down the First African Presbyterian Church and beat up and terrorized black Philadelphians in a four-day violent spree in 1834 — XOXOXOXO.”
And there’s a lot of really good things in Philadelphia history that we should celebrate — not just the 1776 stuff but the city’s important role in the abolition movement and 20th-century figures like urban planner Ed Bacon and pro football’s Bert Bell, who for better or worse gave us the modern NFL. But from when the first smokestacks of the Industrial Revolution started spewing their air pollution, the overarching story of this city has been of migrants — huddled masses from Ireland, Italy, and Eastern Europe, freed blacks from the South, and eventually from all over the world — and of conflict.
It’s great that Philadelphia — a city with some 1,700 statues — is finally getting around to honoring its first African American in the legendary Octavius Catto, who was killed by a white mob as he led black voters to the polls here in 1871. But most schoolkids still won’t know much about the violent white-led race riots in South Philadelphia in 1918; the 1963 “Folcroft incident,” when a white mob tried to stop a black family from moving into a Delco suburb; or the court battle around that same time that (mostly) has prevented the Mummers from wearing blackface.
Which brings us to Rizzo. No one has a more complicated legacy. It’s a story of triumph for one community of former migrants. Philadelphia’s first Italian American mayor, and his nightstick bravado, is still remembered fondly by citizens whose priority during the unsettled 1960s and ’70s was “law and order.” But the more avuncular talk-radio host that Rizzo became in his last decade on earth shouldn’t obscure the fact that his reign as police commissioner and mayor was marked by a vision of white supremacy.
Gym — who’s endured a flood of racist vitriol since calling for removal of the statue — reminded people of a 1978 New York Times story in which Rizzo “indicated that he would seek a new career as head of a national campaign to protect the rights of white Americans.” The then-Philadelphia mayor said, “The whites have to join hands to get equal treatment” at a news conference, before he turned to a black female reporter with questions about his crusade and said, “Your race is beginning to show on your arm.”
Rizzo’s words about equal treatment for whites ring hollow after eight years in which black Philadelphians were denied equal housing opportunities, when the number of black and brown police officers declined (contrary to what you may have read), and when African Americans lived in constant fear of police brutality, including violent dogs that were sicced predominantly upon people of color. The U.S. Justice Department said in 1979 the behavior of Philadelphia police during the Rizzo regime “shocks the conscience.”
But locally, it didn’t shock the conscience enough to prevent us from putting that massive monument to Rizzo in the most prominent place the city could think of, in front of our busiest city office, so that a black man who feared Rizzo’s canine squad as a child 40 years ago now has to pass our waving bronze mayor when he goes to apply for a wage-tax refund. That’s not right. The sooner Rizzo is gone from the Municipal Services Building, the better.
But don’t throw the Bambino out with the trash. Move the statue to a museum — one of our many fine existing ones, or, if someone has deep pockets, a new (and candid) Museum of Philadelphia Race Relations. And then surround the Rizzo monument with exhibits, with pictures that will also show the African Americans (and the others) who were whomped upside the head or bitten by vicious police dogs during Rizzo’s reign of terror. And make sure that every Philadelphia high school kid gets on a bus, gets the grand tour, and then returns to the classroom to talk about what this all has to do with why black kids still don’t have textbooks or why they can’t get a good-paying union job after high school all these years later. Because a Philadelphia that doesn’t remember its true past is condemned to repeat it, again and again.