Columbia Avenue Riot


A black and white photograph of a large group of people standing next to a building.
Only a few hours after the initial scuffle at Twenty-Second and Columbia Avenue, hundreds of people crowded the streets, some of whom began looting businesses. (Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries)

On Friday, August 28, 1964, a scuffle with police at the busy intersection of Twenty-Second Street and Columbia Avenue sparked a three-day riot involving hundreds of North Philadelphians hurling bottles and bricks at police and looting stores. With the Columbia Avenue Riot, Philadelphia joined six other cities, including Jersey City, Paterson, and Elizabeth, New Jersey, that erupted in African American protest during July and August 1964. Similar actions in hundreds of other cities followed by 1968. In Philadelphia, as across the country, urban unrest fractured liberal interracial coalitions and gave rise to law-and-order politics.

At 9:20 on that August night in 1964, two Philadelphia police officers ordered a married couple to move their car from the intersection at Twenty-Second and Columbia Avenue (the street later renamed for civil rights leader Cecil B. Moore). The ensuing scuffle touched off a rumor that the police had beaten and possibly killed a pregnant African American woman. Rioting spread through an area of North Philadelphia that the local press and the police establishment since the mid-1950s had designated “the Jungle” for its entrenched poverty and high crime rates. Like other “ghettos,” the area of Poplar, Lehigh, Tenth, and Thirty-Third Streets also was racially segregated; by 1960, it was 69 percent African American.

A black and white photograph of a group of people (mostly younger people) standing next to a vandalized storefront. Pieces of debris are covering the ground of the store.
Hundreds of stores around Columbia Avenue were looted and vandalized during the riots. During the day, debris from these stores covered the sidewalks. (Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries)

The riot reflected longstanding popular anger at the Philadelphia Police Department and growing divisions among African Americans over a recent shift to more confrontational street protests. On the first night, crowds of young men and women ran along Columbia Avenue, smashing the windows and taking the merchandise almost exclusively from white-owned stores. The busy commercial strip in the heart of North Philadelphia was lined with taprooms and small shops, the vast majority owned by Jewish merchants who sold groceries, appliances, and furniture. One group tossed a garbage can through a squad car window. Crowds pulled prisoners out of police wagons. An activist with the National Muslim Improvement Association led chants of  “We want freedom, we want justice!” Directing the crowd’s anger at Cecil B. Moore (1915-79) for failing to deliver promised reforms despite militant mass protests, one local resident declared, “We don’t need Cecil Moore. We can take care of ourselves.” Members of the crowd also turned their anger on more moderate civil rights leaders who, like Moore, tried to restore calm.

1,800 Police Converge

By the second and third nights, police presence swelled to 1,800 officers. Commissioner Howard Leary (1912-94) instructed police to use minimal force. On Saturday, Mayor James H. J. Tate (1910-83) imposed a curfew in the riot area. By Monday morning, the Columbia Avenue Riot was over. Hundreds had been arrested and injured, and two died. Seven hundred twenty-six buildings had been affected. Property damage and police overtime pay totaled $3.2 million.

A black and white photograph of a man with blood on his face and hands by his head surrounded by two police officers holding batons.
Philadelphia police were ordered not to unholster their guns or use excessive force during the riots, but some rioters were injured while police subdued them. (Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries)

In the next few years, the civil rights movement embraced racial militancy and distanced itself from former white allies. Protests increasingly confronted a police force, led by then-Deputy Commissioner Frank J. Rizzo (1920-91), which proudly embraced racial partisanship. After the uprising, the Fraternal Order of Police escalated its campaign against the civilian-led Police Advisory Board. The Police Department countered the rise of Black Power with a siege mentality that treated Black protest as a threat to the city. By 1969, the Police Advisory Board was gone. Three years later, Rizzo was mayor.

Many local businesses never recovered from the August 1964 uprising. Although the flight of white residents and industrial jobs played a greater role in long-term neighborhood decline, the Columbia Avenue Riot accelerated these trends and contributed to the sense already possessed by Rizzo and many white Philadelphians that “the Jungle” was a violent place to be contained by force. Still, the unrest generated key momentum for local activists that arguably culminated in the election of the city’s first African American mayor, Wilson Goode (b. 1938), in 1983.

Alex Elkins is a Ph.D. Candidate at Temple University, writing a dissertation on the 1960s riots and “get-tough” policing. His article, “‘At Once Judge, Jury, and Executioner’: Rioting and Policing in Philadelphia, 1838-1964,” appears in the Spring 2014 issue of the Bulletin of the German Historical Institute. (Author information current at time of publication.)

Copyright 2014, Rutgers University 


People on the Street

Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries

Within hours of false rumors spreading about Philadelphia police beating a pregnant African American woman, the intersection of Twenty-Second Street and Columbia Avenue filled with people protesting. This image from the first night of rioting on August 28, 1964, shows the density of people who lined the streets to rally against a police force, city, and society that constantly underserved their community. By midnight, hundreds of African American men, women, and teenagers populated the blocks surrounding Columbia Avenue, taunting and throwing objects at police, damaging property, and looting stores. Although 600 police officers were called to the scene on the first night, they were ordered only to restrain the crowds from expanding the riot into other parts of the city.

Looted and Vandalized Storefront

Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries

Local business owners within the riot area faced heavy damage and looting during each night of the riot. Columbia Avenue was lined with small shops that sold a variety of produce, appliances, and furniture. On the first night of the riot, Philadelphia police were ordered to prevent the rioters from causing damage elsewhere in the city but police did little to prevent looters from targeting businesses within the riot zone. Pictured here are mostly children outside of a general store on Columbia Avenue that was vandalized and looted during the first night of the riot.

Police on Thirteenth Street

Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries

The police presence around Columbia Avenue increased from 600 officers on the first night of riot to over 1,800 officers on the second night. Pictured here at the intersection of Thirteenth and Berks Streets is a large group of officers waiting for assignment. Police created blockades around the main riot zone bordered by Poplar, Lehigh, Tenth, and Thirty-Third Streets in an effort to stifle the rioting. Mayor James H.J. Tate placed a curfew on the riot zone on August 29, preventing businesses from opening and allowing police to arrest anyone caught on the street at night. Police volume and constraints did not limit the intensity of the rioting on the second night, but by the third day only a few pockets of rioting occurred and police presence was scaled back.

Violence During the Riot

Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries

Police Commissioner Howard Leary stationed nearly 1,800 Philadelphia police officers around Columbia Avenue during the riot and ordered his officers to use minimal force to prevent the riot from spreading and to protect other civilians, without provoking more uproar. Leary prohibited officers from unholstering their firearms unless provoked with a deadly weapon. One of the two deaths that occurred during the riot was from a police officer who shot a rioter who had a knife. More than 200 people suffered bodily injuries while participating in the riot. Fights broke out among rioters, and, like the man in this photograph from August 29, police subdued rioters with batons before arresting them. Over a hundred police officers themselves were hurt from rioters throwing rocks, bottles, and other objects.

Columbia Avenue After the First Night of Rioting

Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries

On the morning of August 29, 1964, with the Columbia Avenue rioting having started less than twelve hours earlier, this was the view looking west down Columbia Avenue (at the intersection of Fifteenth Street). Although the rioting originated and revolved around Twenty-Second Street and Columbia Avenue, waves of rioters erupted in protest in the area bounded by Poplar, Lehigh, Tenth, and Thirty-Third Streets, causing havoc throughout the night. In this image, large groups are still walking along the sidewalk, police officers are walking through the crowds, and debris from broken windows and looted businesses covers the entire area.

Arrests During the Columbia Avenue Riot

Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries

During and after the Columbia Avenue riot nearly a thousand people were arrested for looting stores, causing property damage, and/or assaulting people. Police officers arrested 308 people during the rioting, including those pictured here waiting for a hearing at City Hall. Philadelphia police charged three men for inciting the riot and conspiring to start a riot, but after months of trials, only Shayk Muhammad Hassan was found guilty. In the months after the rioting, the police investigated photographs and testimony from citizens in the riot zone and made more than 600 additional arrests.

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Related Reading

“Background of Northern Negro Riots,” New York Times, September 27, 1964.

Berson, Lenora. Case Study of a Riot: The Philadelphia Story. New York: Institute of Human Relations Press, 1966.

Countryman, Matthew J. Up South: Civil Rights and Black Power in Philadelphia. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006.

Flamm, Michael. Law and Order: Street Crime, Civil Unrest, and the Crisis of Liberalism in the 1960s. New York: Columbia University Press, 2005.

Johnson, Karl Ellis. “Black Philadelphia in Transition: The African American Struggle on the Homefront During World War II and the Cold War Period, 1941-1963.” Ph.D. diss., Temple University, 2001. ProQuest (AAT 304729908).

Paolantonio, S. A. Frank Rizzo: The Last Big Man in Big City America. 10th ed. Philadelphia: Camino Books, 2003.

“Riots – Phila. – Misc. – 1964 – September – December,” George D. McDowell Philadelphia Evening Bulletin Newsclipping Collection, Special Collections Research Center, Temple University, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

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