Philadelphia: A History of Racism, Repression and Struggle
By John Leslie
Philadelphia, PA was the first major city in what was to become the United States. Early on, the city’s Black population, both free and slave, was substantial. Escaped slaves came to Pennsylvania, seeing the state as a refuge from southern slaveholders having outlawed slavery in 1780.
In the 100 years spanning 1790-1890, the Black population of Philadelphia rose to almost 40,000. A further increase in Black migration from the South was made possible by greater opportunities for work in the mines and mills of Pennsylvania. Black workers were consigned to the dirtiest and most dangerous jobs. The demand for workers was made more acute by the First World War, when the supply of immigrant labor from Europe was cut off. About 50,000 Black workers from the South and the West Indies came to Philly during the war. Afterward, many Black workers lost their jobs to returning white veterans.
Throughout the history of Philadelphia, the competition for jobs between white and Black workers led to tensions and, at times, violence towards Black workers. In 1917 and 1918, there were race riots directed at Black workers, in both Chester, PA and Philadelphia, which left two dead and many injured.
In 1911, a Black steel worker, Zachariah Walker, was lynched in Coatesville, PA. Black workers experienced systematic discrimination in the Philadelphia area. This discrimination was resisted by the NAACP, Black fraternal organizations and churches.
From 1913 to 1922, the Industrial Workers of the World, Local 8, organized a multiracial union of dock workers. Local 8 had an integrated leadership and won many gains for longshoremen on Philly’s docks. The union was smashed by the employers in 1922 in the midst of the Red Scare. The bosses played on racial prejudices of the workers to divide the union and weaken it.
The Second World War brought another surge of migration to meet the needs of war production. WWII opened the door to increased activity demanding civil rights and an end to job discrimination.
For example, the Transport Workers Union fought for the hiring of Black trolley operators during the war. The 1944 Philadelphia Transportation Company strike was a hate strike intended to stop the hiring of Black workers by the local transport company.
“In a desperate move to smash the CIO Transport Workers Union, the Philadelphia Transportation Company, acting in collusion with leaders of the former company union, last week inspired a six-day municipal transportation stoppage against the training of eight Negro workers for operating jobs on street cars and buses.
“Using the time-worn device of ‘divide and rule,’ the company and its agents provoked this anti-labor race-hate action aimed at splitting the ranks of the CIO union, which a few months ago won a collective bargaining election against the company-sponsored Philadelphia Rapid Transit Employees Union. This company outfit for years had upheld the PTC’s flagrant Jim Crow policies…” (Art Preis, “Philadelphia Walkout Aims To Smash CIO Transport Union,” The Militant, August 7, 1944)
For several days, the strike brought Philadelphia’s public transport to a standstill. Given the city’s importance to war-time production, President Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered the Secretary of War to put an end to the walkout. General Phillip Hayes ordered strikers to return to work. Refusal would have meant termination and loss of draft deferments. The eight Black workers were allowed to assume the jobs they had been promised.
Following WWII, a Republican-controlled city council passed anti-discrimination legislation, but racism and lack of opportunity persisted in employment, education and housing. During the 1950s, Black clergy led a series of boycotts demanding fair employment opportunities and winning some victories.
In the early 1960s, the NAACP led demonstrations against Jim Crow practices in the building trades and the exclusion of Black tradesmen from jobs in the city. This struggle reached its height in a fight to integrate the site of a new junior high school in North Philadelphia. NAACP pickets, which included many Black trades people, blocked the work-site gates demanding the hiring of minority workers. Pickets were met with violence from white union workers and cops.
After two weeks of picketing, building trades unions and contractors met with the NAACP and the AFL-CIO Human Rights Committee to iron out an agreement.
“By the time the meeting came to an end, Moore believed that the contractors had agreed to hire a Black plumber, a steamfitter and two electricians onto the Strawberry mansion site. On Tuesday morning, however, Moore and NAACP pickets found not a desegregated workforce, but rather a significantly larger police presence with orders . . . to insure that workers were able to enter the site.” (source: “Up South, Civil Rights and Black Power in Philadelphia,” by Matthew J. Countryman)
Despite promises from the unions, the overwhelmingly white composition of building site crews persists to this day.
From Civil Rights to Black Power
As the civil rights struggle in the South heated up and with the emergence of the Black Power movement, Black radicals in Philadelphia organized themselves.
In 1964, John Churchville, a Philly native who had worked organizing for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, SNCC, in Mississippi and Georgia, opened a SNCC Freedom Library in the city. A core group of activists soon gathered around SNCC’s principles of self-organization and organizing independent of white liberals.
The Freedom Library became a center for educational programs, including tutoring of students, as well as an organizing center for the Black Peoples’ Unity Movement. BPUM was a nationalist-oriented formation dedicated to community control and Black self-organization.
In August 1966, 80 Philadelphia cops, led by Police Chief Frank Rizzo, raided the offices of SNCC, the Freedom Library and apartments where activists lived. Some dynamite, which had been brought into the SNCC headquarters by one activist, Barry Dawson, was seized and Dawson was charged with possession of an explosive. Other SNCC activists and organizers went into hiding as Rizzo claimed that he had evidence that SNCC was planning to initiate a campaign of urban guerilla warfare. Police repression effectively ended SNCC’s organizing in Philadelphia.
The emergence of the Black Power tendency was the result of frustration with the self-limiting nature of the liberal-controlled mainstream civil rights organizations — in particular with the nonviolence strategy of a civil rights leadership that condemned self-defense by the oppressed. Black Power was untainted by the anti-communist prejudices of the past and embraced internationalism and anti-imperialism. Black Power was a concrete step towards a break with the subordination of the Black community to the Democrats and towards political independence.
The founding of the Philadelphia chapter of the Black Panther Party by young activists, including Mumia Abu-Jamal, was met with police violence under the command of the reactionary Police Commissioner (and later Mayor) Frank Rizzo. Mumia had been beaten by Philly cops while protesting against a campaign appearance of the racist George Wallace in 1968.
On August 31, 1970, Rizzo’s cops raided the offices of the BPP in North Philadelphia and Germantown on suspicion of Panther involvement in the shootings of two police officers. No evidence linking the BPP to the shootings was found, but Black Panthers were marched through the streets naked in an attempt to humiliate them. The raid had the effect of increasing community support for the BPP. In September 1970, the BPP-initiated People’s Constitutional Convention convened on the Temple University campus with more than 6,000 participants.
“Despite the ever-present repression, the police harassments, and the arrests, the city’s chapter blossomed as Black youth flocked to the offices to join the Party. We had Panther supporters in most of the city high schools, selling and sharing the newspapers. By fall 1970, we fed kids in four sites throughout the city; across from the main office in North Philadelphia on Columbia Avenue in a storefront next to a supermarket, in West Philadelphia, in a church near Party headquarters; in Germantown; and in a community center in South Philadelphia.” (Mumia Abu-Jamal, “We Want Freedom”)
Unfortunately, the BPP was destroyed by police repression, COINTELPRO disruption and spying, and factionalism.
Not able to rely upon repression alone to keep the aspirations of the Black community under control; the Democratic Party assimilated a layer of Black reformists and former radicals into their ranks. The ability of the Democrats to co-opt the demands of popular movements helps the ruling class keep potentially radicalized people trapped in a set-up that’s rightly called the graveyard of social movements.
Postwar white flight to Pennsylvania and New Jersey suburbs, and the loss of many industrial jobs in the city, has meant that tens of thousands of Black workers face a choice between long-term structural unemployment or a future of low-wage, no-benefit jobs. By 1990, Blacks were about 40% of the population of the city.
According to the Philadelphia Inquirer: “Already the poorest big city in America, Philadelphia also has the highest rate of deep poverty — people with incomes below half of the poverty line — of any of the nation’s 10 most populous cities.” This high level of poverty disproportionately affects people of color.
The struggle for equality and justice persists today as Philadelphians face poverty and lack of jobs, attacks on public education, mass incarceration, police brutality and gentrification of neighborhoods. Fighting back will require unity and the mass activity of the most oppressed. As we fight for the future, we should remember the past and learn its lessons.