Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

'Gathering storm': The Philly riots of '64

Richard Watson still remembers the moment he woke up.

It was August 28, 1964 – a Friday night wrapped in a moist blanket of late summer heat. Watson was 18 – a budding art student, thin and, in his own words, "geeky." He could have been out on what folks called "Jump Street" or "The Ave" – a thriving commercial strip of Columbia Avenue in the heart of North Philly, where weekend crowds scurried between shows at the Rex or the Liberty movie houses and a neon string of pool halls and taverns. But as midnight approached, Watson was simply trying to get some sleep, a couple of blocks away from the strip in his family's apartment at 22nd and Master.

Then something approached, like a gathering storm.

"I heard a distant sound, like a rally of noise and people -- like when people fight, with cheering and jeering, and it seemed far away," recalled Watson, now 68, grey-haired and soft-spoken. "Then I heard breaking glass. Then I heard more breaking glass, and it sounded like it was on my block!

"That's when I said, 'Whoa, what's going on here?' Then I heard the sirens."

What Watson heard that August night – exactly 50 years ago, tomorrow – were the first stirrings of the worst outbreak of civil unrest in modern Philadelphia history, a full-blown riot that lasted for three hellish nights as roving bands of looters methodically went from the butcher to the liquor store to the appliance store and to every merchant in between, smashing in windows and running down Ridge Avenue with TV sets or even sofas on their backs, while others rained down bricks and rooftop debris on the outnumbered cops.

They say that numbers tell the story. But in the case of the 1964 North Philadelphia riot, the cold statistics – 339 people hurt, including 100 police, hundreds arrested, at least one man killed and property damage that would be $23 million in today's dollars – don't really show the impact on the psyche of what was then America's 4th biggest city. By the time the shards of glass were swept and the sirens stopped echoing, many folks – both black and white – would never look at Philadelphia, or each other, quite the same.

It was a political and moral awakening – albeit a grim one – not just for Richard Watson but for much of the city, a giant tipping point. Amid the chaos of three days on Columbia Avenue, you can see the birth of the two social movements that would come to dominate Philadelphia for much of the next half-century.

One was the push for black political empowerment, as African-Americans abandoned timid cooperation with the white political machine and forged their own path, on the streets and later at the ballot box. The other was the quest from the white working class for "law and order," as a deputy commissioner named Frank Rizzo took control of the riot squad, then the police department, then City Hall.

In 1987, the city even tossed out the name of Columbia Avenue, erasing a moniker now linked to looting and unrest, and renaming the street Cecil B. Moore Avenue, in honor of the local NAACP president who first tried and failed to stop the riot, and then tapped the energy of young radicalized blacks for the rest of the '60s and '70s. But the name change couldn't paper over the flight of dozens of stores and small businesses -- most white-owned -- that boarded up in the weeks, months and years that followed, leaving holes that still remain.

Today at 22nd and Cecil B. Moore, which was Ground Zero for the 1964 riot, there is a bizarre vibe, as if time came to a stop that Friday night. There is no sense that shoppers once walked these streets, which were redolent with fresh vegetables on pushcarts or today's ocean catch glistening in store windows. Instead, buildings with rusted-out tin facades and plywood windows alternate like moldy chess pieces with weedy green patches of grass; on 22nd, the front door of an empty building throws wide open to a room littered with food cartons and trash; a nearby man nearby sunk into a folding chair asks a stranger to buy him a soda. It's impossible not to think:

What the hell happened here?

Broken down and "blasted"

August 28, 1964, was one year – to the day – after Dr. Martin Luther King had delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech before the multitudes at the iconic March on Washington. That summer, the papers brimmed with news of the burgeoning civil rights movement, but in Philadelphia two other stories were dominant: The arrival at the Convention Center in just 10 days of those British "moptops," the Beatles, and the Phillies, who were returning for a homestand that night in first place, with their first trip to the World Series in 14 years seemingly all but clinched.

But Rush and Odessa Bradford, a 30-something African-American couple living in the crowded heart of North Philadelphia, didn't really care about any of that on this particular Friday night.

They were just trying to get home

But now their hulky boat of a maroon Buick was broken down at the worst possible spot – the intersection of 22nd Street and Columbia Avenue, the pulsating center of North Philly – and at the worst possible time: 9:45 p.m. the movie theatres were unloading and the nightclub-goers and pool sharks were hitting "The Ave" to start the weekend.

To make matters worse, the Bradfords were drunk – "blasted," Odessa told a reporter years later -- and having a violent quarrel right there in the front seat. It wasn't long before two cops, Officers John Hoff and Robert Wells, pulled up in a "red ace" -- one of Philadelphia's distinctive police cruisers of the mid-1960s, bright fire-engine red, white-sedan top flanked by three red-and-blue sirens.

In 1964, Philadelphia's police force was overwhelmingly white, but it was more integrated than many of its U.S. counterparts. Often in black neighborhoods, as both cops and residents from that era recall, a patrol car had one white officer and a black one, and this was the case at 22nd and Columbia. Wells, who was an African-American, got out of the "red ace" and tried to calm down Odessa Bradford, seated at the steering wheel.

It didn't work. Instead, the woman started yelling and flailing at the police officer, Wells, just as she'd done toward her husband. The Friday night crowd swelled at the sudden prospect of entertainment, while car horns honked. Within seconds, a 41-year-old man named James Mettles broke from the crowd and punched the white officer, John Hoff, in the face. The melee was on. As police arrested Odessa Bradford and Mettles, bottles, rocks and even a few bricks flew from the corner or the roofs of the 3-story buildings that lined both sides of Columbia. Two dozen more cops raced to the scene, and for a short moment things seem to be calming down.

But the peace was short-lived. In 1964, in a poor and working-class neighborhood like North Philadelphia, very few homes had air conditioning units, and many did not yet have TV sets. In late-summer heat waves during the 1960s, residents spent long nights outdoors, sometimes dazed by the oppressive temperatures. There was a completely different kind of "social media." The "Facebook" of 1964 was a crowded stoop, while "Twitter" was the short bursts of gossip shouted out at the street corner.

On this Friday night, the micro-bursts of information – or misinformation, mostly – came from the likes of Raymond Hall, a 25-year-old man who was described later in a report commissioned by the American Jewish Committee as an apolitical "agitator." It was Hall, the report said, who stood a block away, at 23rd and Columbia, yelling at anyone who would listen: "A pregnant black woman's been beaten and a shot to death by a white policeman."

The fake rumors inflamed the people out on the hot August night. By 11 p.m., one of the first journalists to arrive on the scene, William P. Naulty of the Philadelphia Bulletin, reported that things had spiraled out of control, that he "saw bricks, bottles and stones raining down." As Friday night turned to Saturday morning, the riot zone expanded across roughly 100 blocks in the heart of North Philly – roving gangs hurling trash cans through store windows, smashing in police cruisers and racing down the streets with their loot.

The odd part was that no one seemed surprised. In July 1964, major riots had erupted in Harlem and in Rochester, N.Y., and there were rumors that Philadelphia was next, that black nationalists who followed the likes of Malcolm X -- who was at the peak of his influence -- were gaining a foothold in the city's neighborhoods and gearing up for trouble.

Indeed, one of the first men arrested was Shaykh Muhammud Ali Hussan, also known as Abyssinia Hayes, who ran a so-called "African-Asian Culture Center" and dry-cleaning shop at 23rd and Columbia. According to the AJC report, authored by the late Philadelphian Lenora Berson, the Shaykh, attired in a green and gold fez, was busted for "obscene exhorting of the crowds" as he stood outside the center, spewing a stream of curse words amid his cries of "We want freedom!"

But while the city's Human Relations Commission had already investigated rumors that summer that a New York-based group called the Black Brothers was fomenting unrest in North Philly, the commission, and others, never found any proof that outsiders had anything to do with the civil revolt that August. In fact, most say that roving youths were augmented by adults from the community, some of them employed, with decent jobs. Early Saturday morning, press accounts said one of the leaders of the unrest was a 23-year-old female secretary for a local charity who stood on an overturned refrigerator and shouted down Moore, the NAACP leader. "We don't need no civil rights," she screamed. "We can take care of ourselves!"

Thomas Sugrue, history professor at the University of Pennsylvania and author of the landmark Origins of the Urban Crisis, said research later showed that 1960s black rioters "tended to be better off and more employed. We don't have data from Philadelphia but other studies have shown that rioting was a form of protest."

Watching the events go down was Curtis Thomas, then a 16-year-old student from Thomas Edison High School who was already working a string of odd jobs to support his family over at 17th and Diamond, and who heard the ruckus coming down Ridge Avenue. As he watched two rival gangs in a fistfight near 23rd and Ridge with overwhelmed cops standing by on the corner, Thomas was also not surprised, not at all.

"People were letting out all of the frustrations," Thomas recalled recently, driving down the renamed Cecil B. Moore Avenue. "All of the frustration -- all of the anger and the hopelessness -- was just let out."

"What do you got in your pocket?"

Like many folks in North Philadelphia in the post-World War II era, the young Thomas and his family had come here from the still-segregated South, seeking opportunities that simply didn't exist for them south of the Mason-Dixon Line. His dad, one of the Tuskegee Airmen, had arrived at the end of World War II from Albany, Ga., a community where segregation-minded lawmen would later jail Martin Luther King and thwart many of his civil rights demands.

"They thought that the North would allow them to work and raise their family, and other family members who'd moved here before would call back home and tell everybody how good it was up North," Thomas recalled.

The reality proved more complicated. Some of that, as always, was personal; Thomas said that his father, an electrician, physically abused his mom, tearing their family apart and forcing him to start working at age 9 to help support himself, his mother, his six sisters and a brother. But the hurdles for families like Thomas' were societal as well.

For one thing, even by the '50s and '60s the Industrial Revolution that had earned Philadelphia its reputation as "Workshop of the World" was winding down -- and factory jobs were growing scarce. Even so, North Philadelphia continued to grow more crowded – thanks largely to urban renewal, including millions that government spent during the 1950s on "slum clearance" in Society Hill and elsewhere, and the rapid growth of the Temple University campus in the heart of the neighborhood.

Thomas and his family moved again and again – 13 times in all. "We would come down in the morning and there would be a 're-assign'" – a kind of a foreclosure notice – "on the front door," he recalled. Later, researchers say the transient nature of North Philadelphia hindered community building as African-Americans became the dominant group in the neighborhood.

But the problems didn't stop there. A 1964 report on poverty found incomes in the riot zone were 30 percent or more below the citywide average, while the jobless rate was somewhere between 13.5 percent to 20 percent, about 2-3 times that of elsewhere in Philadelphia. More than half of students in North Philadelphia didn't finish high school, and youth unemployment was 60 percent. The neighborhood had fewer parks and libraries than elsewhere in the city, but more taprooms. In the predominantly white media, it was sometimes called "The Jungle."

That offends people who grew up there and never heard anyone calling it that. They called it home, and the picture they paint is more complicated. Kids explored on bicycles or roller skates, parents shopped in a thriving commercial district that included a supermarket at "The Point" where Ridge and Columbia met on an angle, while older residents looked out the window and kept on eye on things, much like the block captains of today.

But teenagers like Thomas or Watson who wanted simply to go to school and get ahead faced two huge hurdles: The gangs, and the cops.

Youth gangs held sway on nearly every block. "When I went to Edison in 1962, '63, I could not get in without fighting…or kissing the two lions on the door" -- an act of capitulation, Thomas explained. "I had to fight for 16 days straight to get into Edison, and get through at least four different gangs."

Watson – who arrived in Philadelphia as an adolescent in the late 1950s by way of North Carolina and then New York -- said that whenever he bicycled into a new area he'd be pulled aside by kids asking what "corner," or gang, he was from. He said he found a way to disarm them. "They would say 'Where are you from?' and I would say, 'North Carolina' – they weren't expecting that." Eventually, he learned the back-alley routes where he could avoid them all together.

The police were a different story. Like most young blacks, Watson said he was stopped and frisked by officers constantly. "They would harass you and ask, 'What do you got in your pocket?' which was usually nothing because I didn't have a dime," Watson recalled. "But they would come over and pat you down, and ask, 'Where are you coming from?' I was pretty much compliant." He said he watched other kids mouth off -- and get slammed against the red door of the cop cruiser.

Police brutality had been a major complaint among Philadelphia blacks for years. In 1958, the city's liberal-minded reform mayor, Richardson Dilworth, worked with Moore's NAACP and others to create a Police Advisory Board that was the first of its kind in the nation, but six years later most blacks still felt the cops were a menacing presence in North Philadelphia.

Increasingly, African-Americans in Philadelphia and other northern cities watched scenes like the May 1963 protest marches in Birmingham, Ala., when city officials backed down on segregation after marchers led by Dr. King withstood Sheriff Bull Connor's police dogs and fire hoses, and wondered when their own grievances would be addressed. That same month, at a solidarity rally for the Birmingham marchers, the NAACP's Moore and other activists launched what would be a bitter but largely successful campaign to protest school construction sites in Strawberry Mansion to force the hiring of black workers.

"There was also a growing sense of frustration at non-violence," said Matthew Countryman, a Philadelphia native and University of Michigan associate professor of history and American culture, who in 2006 authored the definitive Up South: Civil Rights and Black Power in Philadelphia. The killing of four black girls in the bombing of a Birmingham Sunday school in 1963 was a turning point. "People said, 'Martin Luther King said turn the other cheek, and now they're killing our children.'"

Racial tension mounted in the Philadelphia region over the next 15 months, including a fight to desegregate schools in nearby Chester, the August 1963 "Folcroft Incident" in which whites rioted to try to keep a black family out of an all-white suburb, and a court battle to ban "blackface" in the Mummers Parade. In October 1963, cops put down the early stages of a riot on North Philadelphia's Susquehanna Avenue when a 24-year-old black man was shot and killed by a white cop -- but fears of a bigger conflagration only grew.

When those worries were realized 10 months later, city officials looked to black community leaders like Moore to stop the looting. What they didn't realize was the black establishment was losing its grip on the neighborhood.

"A chance to get these things"

It was 3:45 a.m. on Saturday when Moore arrived in the heart of the unrest on Columbia Avenue. Ironically, he'd been at the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, where another civil rights drama had taken place – as delegates tried and failed to find a compromise to seat some of a mostly black delegation of activists from Mississippi's "Freedom Summer." Now, Moore found hundreds of people still out in the pre-dawn gloaming, amid the broken glass that glistened from scattered small fires, chanting "We want freedom!"

"I understand your problems, but this is no way to solve them," he shouted. "It's late. Everybody go home and go to bed."

One woman reportedly shouted back: "Listen, man…this is the only time in my life I've got a chance to get these things!" At one point, young blacks reportedly threw rocks at the NAACP leader. The message was unmistakable, that an age of accommodation with the white power structure was over and that militancy would be the new direction.

Throughout Saturday, a stream of the city's black political and cultural establishment – including Judge Raymond Pace Alexander, the top black elected official, and popular radio DJ Georgie Woods, saw their pleas for calm shouted down. The Rev. Leon Sullivan even called for the National Guard to stop the looting.

The most bizarre moment would come on Saturday afternoon when comedian Dick Gregory arrived in town; he and Moore – distressed that the bogus rumor that Odessa Bradford had been killed was still making the rounds on the street – found the woman and drove her and her husband around North Philly in an open white Cadillac.

"Here she is!" Moore shouted through a bullhorn, as recounted to the Inquirer years later. "She's alive. She's not dead. She's not pregnant. She's not even hurt!" Bradford told the newspaper that the surreal experience was like being "a homecoming queen." There was other near-comic relief as cops pulled over four black men with Michigan plates at 30th and Diamond, thinking they'd stopped outside agitators – only to learn it was the singing group the Pips, who'd performed with Gladys Knight at the Uptown Theatre.

It wasn't so funny on the streets, where bare mannequins stripped of clothing lay on the pavement like macabre plastic corpses.

"There was just a lot of glass on the street because there weren't a lot of grates back then, and the windows were smashed," recalled Watson of venturing out on Saturday. "Things were just lying in the street, like television sets that people had dropped – it looked like a hurricane had hit." He saw people carrying heavy objects on their backs, even sofas from a furniture store, and some families dumped their old couches on the sidewalk for the new arrivals – a move that would later backfire as police later came to look for stolen property.

But looters were selective. Today, Thomas points to two corners at 24th and Ridge that were occupied by groceries. One that he said was frequently accused of selling bad meat, that didn't hire local people and where the owner was considered rude, was completely trashed; the other, Barney's, which did use local black kids as baggers, was mostly spared. "People started moving toward Barney's, and folks stopped them," he recalled. "They said, 'Mr. Barney is nice!'"

Still, about two-third of the neighborhood businesses were looted. Many of the merchants who were hit hardest were Jewish, sparking a long post-riot debate over whether anti-Semitism was a factor. Berson, in studying the riot for the American Jewish Committee, wrote a couple of years later that "not one eyewitness to the riot recalls the mobs shouting anti-Semitic slogans, although anti-white epithets abounded."

Merchants were devastated, by both the financial loss and by the message the looters were sending. One – Max Gordon, the 62-year-old owner of a ladies' garment shop on North Marshall Street – told the Daily News that the riot "reminded me of a sad day in the Ukraine in 1919," when his father's store was looted and four relatives were killed.

"It's all gone now, all gone," Sam Nerenblatt, the owner for more than three decades of a dry goods store at 18th and Columbia, told the Daily News.

"Civil rights?" he went on. "Where are my civil rights? My people left the old country to try to get away from things like this. Looting and stealing. Isn't there any law left?" Nerenblatt said he'd called the 22nd District police station after hearing about the mayhem on Friday night, and was told by the officer on duty there was a "hands-off policy" toward looters. Berson reported that of the 54 businesses that apparently were not looted at all, only two were not owned by blacks, and one was a Chinese restaurant that had placed a sign, "we are colored too."

Many were asking the same question that store-owner Nerenblatt had wondered: Where were the police? In the wake of the Susquehanna Avenue disturbance in 1963, then-Commissioner Howard Leary had declared a back-off approach that aimed to reduce human injuries and deaths, even though it might lead to more property losses.

But things were about to change – not just that weekend, but for years to come.

Removing the badge

This wasn't the job that Mike Chitwood signed up for. He was just 20, a rookie police officer who'd graduated from the police academy in April 1964. Now he was on a city bus packed with other young officers headed up North Broad Street to a staging area at the Temple campus, one of hundreds of extra cops called in for the second night of the riot.

Chitwood had been in grade school – Stella Maris parish, in South Philly – looked with respect toward the officer on safety patrol at the school crossing. "He was very friendly – his focus was on helping other people," he recalled. "I decided going into the 8th grade that I wanted to be a police officer." But he didn't envision facing down an angry mob.

He'd spent his first few months on the job in University City, helping Penn control a rash of campus crime. He didn't know North Philadelphia at all. "I was scared to death," he recalls today, frankly. "I had no idea what a riot even was."

But one thing was clear when Chitwood sat down for the roll call. It was the deputy commissioner – the brash, authority-wielding Frank Rizzo, already a notorious tough cop nicknamed "the Cisco Kid – who was running the show on Day Two. "He said, 'Stop the looting, stop the rioting, clubs are trump, don't take any crap."

Mayor James Tate, a product of the Democratic machine who'd taken over for the reformer Dilworth in 1962 and won a full term the next year, was ready to take a harder line as well. He unearthed a 1850 law that gave him the authority to impose a curfew, and he also ordered bars and liquor stores closed in the riot zone.

Rizzo had been on the scene since the initial reports of looting, and he was clearly chafing at Leary's restrictions. At one point at the peak of the chaos, as a Bulletin photographer Jack Tinney later related to author Sal Paolantonio, someone asked Rizzo where his gun was. "It's in my pocket," he said. "We were told not to use them." At dawn Saturday, he was spotted in a heated argument with the commissioner. At some later date, he would tell the South Philadelphia Review that Leary was "a gutless bastard."

On Saturday, Leary stayed mainly at the command center, while Rizzo was in charge on the street. Chitwood found himself in a cruiser with three other cops – one of whom told him to remove his hat and his badge. "That's so they don't get your badge number." For the rest of the day and into Sunday, the rookie officer found himself working with officers and with Fire Department crews to check every roof for people who were throwing bricks – and for feared snipers. It was dangerous work, but the young officer found it exhilarating.

"By the second day, I was into it," Chitwood says today, with an almost embarrassed grin. He also became a fan that weekend of Rizzo, who he describes today as a man who supported "law and order" and "hard-working cops who did the job." He was not alone.

Rizzo's son, Frank Jr., who was 21 at the time of the riots and would later become a Republican City Council member, also recalls his father taking command that day. "They removed Howard Leary to put Frank Rizzo in to deal with the problem – that was unprecedented," he recalled.

In some ways, Saturday night was just as intense as the night before, as a second wave of rioters now engaged in what Berson later described as "leapfrog battles" with some 1,800 officers who were now stationed four at every corner, roving through the riot zone on two commandeered city buses and, in foreshadowing of the modern urban policing that was commencing that weekend, even patrolling North Philly from a helicopter.

It only became notable in hindsight what didn't happen that weekend. Unlike many of the urban riots that followed – most famously, the Watts section of Los Angeles in 1965 and Detroit and Newark in the so-called "Long Hot Summer" of 1967 – there was little destruction by fire, and almost no loss of life. Riots led to 34 deaths in Watts, 26 in Newark, 43 in Detroit, but – by most accounts – only one in Philadelphia, a 21-year-old black man named Robert Green who was shot by police officers after he allegedly lunged with a knife.

But if the loss of life was minimal, the changes in Philadelphia's body politic would be extensive. In hindsight, Aug. 28, 1964, was the death-knell for the genteel, reform-minded liberal politics of the 1950s that had been initiated by the Democratic upstarts Joe Clark and Dilworth. What replaced it was a brass-knuckle fight for control of Philadelphia for the rest of the 20th Century and beyond.

"Language of the unheard"

Two years later, after a slew of similar urban riots, including Watts, CBS' Mike Wallace asked Dr. King in an interview what he thought of the unrest, and whether young blacks were abandoning non-violence. The civil rights leader responded, famously: "I contend that the cry of 'black power' is, at bottom, a reaction to the reluctance of white power to make the kind of changes necessary to make justice a reality for the Negro. I think that we've got to see that a riot is the language of the unheard."

But others viewed the looting and the violence quite differently. The FBI, in its own post-mortem on the Columbia Avenue riot, described it as "a senseless attack on all constituted authority, without purpose or object." For so-called white ethnic voters – Italian-Americans in South Philly, or Jewish voters rapidly abandoned the inner city for Oxford Circle or elsewhere in the Northeast – Rizzo was the embodiment of their desire for law and order.

Mayor Tate saw that. He finally named him police commissioner in 1967, two years before Rizzo notoriously arrived from a formal event to bust up a civil rights protest with a nightstick in his tuxedo cummerbund. "I felt that Rizzo could bring the white working class vote back into the Democratic Party," Tate later wrote. Today, Frank Rizzo Jr. recalls his dad militarizing the police force to deal with urban unrest, once even prompting a famous Daily News headline: "Rizzo Gets a Tank!"

Tate rode his commitment to keep Rizzo as commissioner to narrowly beat the young upstart Republican DA named Arlen Specter in the 1967 major's race, and then, seemingly inevitably, Rizzo himself won election as mayor in 1971. In tandem, the Fraternal Order of Police, which had also bristled at Leary's passive approach to the riot, saw its clout grow, and opposition to civilian review of police misconduct also gained clout.

But the Rizzo rise brought an equal and opposite reaction among Philadelphia's African-Americans, led by Cecil B. Moore. While many of the city's black leaders were ashamed by the riots and castigated the looters, Moore – the shout-downs from the throng at 22nd and Columbia still burning in his ears, had a different idea: To harness the anger of the street toward more productive goals of social change.

"I'm the God-damned boss," Moore told the New York Times that fall, arguing that he spoke for poor and working class blacks. "I run a grassroots group, not a cocktail party, tea-sipping fashion-show-attending bunch of exhibitionists." He accused the police of brutality in the riot, calling cops "an inhuman bunch of sadists bent on revenge," and when 1965 arrived he worked to channel growing youth radicalism toward the goal of integrating all-white Girard College, a boarding school for orphans in the heart of North Philly.

At the vanguard of the Girard protests, shortly after they began May 1, 1965, was the now-19-year-old art student, Richard Watson. Before the riots, Watson said he'd been mildly aware of civil rights, helping to print signs for marchers headed to the 1963 March on Washington. But now he was radicalized, as he marched on the front lines at Girard, just a block from his home. He became a key member of a group that was called the Young Militants, or the Cecil B. Moore Freedom Fighters.

"We felt that we were young enough and vigilant enough to take on some of the opportunities to make a difference – we would not be intimidated," Watson recalled. At the Girard protests – where Rizzo would punch a protester, King would show up to proclaim the 10-foot, stone wall "is like the Berlin Wall," and integration would come after a 3-year battle – Watson was arrested once for drawing sketches of the demonstrations. From then on, images of the struggle for civil rights have become the central theme of Watson's art; today he is curator of exhibitions at the African American Museum in Philadelphia.

At the same time, blacks looked increasingly to create their own political machine outside the white power structure. The same year that Rizzo took over City Hall, 1971, a black candidate, then-state Rep. Hardy Williams, ran a credible campaign for mayor, and one of his aides, W. Wilson Goode, became the first African-American mayor a dozen years later – beating Rizzo in a Democratic primary.

Other witnesses to the 1964 riot became activists in the tumultuous years that followed, including Thomas. He stayed close to home, earned a degree from Temple, taught for a time, and ultimately worked to tame the ruffians that had once harassed him on the way to school, co-founding the anti-gang-violence Philadelphia Committee for Services to Youth. In 1988, Thomas was elected to the state House, representing parts of North Philadelphia and Northern Liberties, and he is currently running for a 14th term.

"I think the Civil Rights Act of 1964" – the landmark federal law that Thomas later wrote a book about – "helped move progress and there were pockets of development that proved to be productive, but through all of it we lost sight of something more precious, our human capital," he now says.

Mike Chitwood is still on the job 50 years later, the media savvy police chief of Upper Darby. But many other key players are gone. Moore won election to the City Council from North Philadelphia in 1975 but died four years later, to be replaced by John Street. Rizzo lost to Goode a second time after switching to the GOP, and was that party's nominee for mayor yet again in 1991 when he died of massive heart attack. Odessa Bradford, spent 30 days in jail, divorced her husband the year after the riot and stayed in North Philadelphia. She told the Inquirer in 1989 that she cussed out anyone who called her "the riot starter," then died in 1992. Wells, the police officer who tangled with her, stayed on the force for 15 more years and died in 2011 at age of 85.

Chitwood remembers riding with Wells years after the riot and eventually asking him what happened that night. The officer told Chitwood that "when they hate you, it doesn't matter what color you are, they hate the blue" of the uniform, although he added with an ironic chuckle, "Who would expect a black cop to start a riot?"

While so many of the players have passed on, the riot zone itself barely clings to life. Experts like Sugrue and Countryman said riots aren't what devastated so many inner cities – so-called "white flight" had started in the '40s and '50s, and the looming end of the Industrial Revolution and federal cuts to cities were destined to spur further decline. Countryman said a study of Jewish merchants predating 1964 found "they already were in crisis – their property was worth next to nothing" before the looters even arrived.

But in Philadelphia, the 1964 riot certainly may have sped up the onset of post-industrial blight; many stores were shuttered within a couple of years, and even today there's only about one-third as many merchants as 50 years ago. More than half of North Philadelphia's population left, and about half of those who remain receive government benefits such as food stamps. A 2008 report on the aftermath of 1960s riots found Philadelphia is more residentially segregated than in 1964, and one of the most segregated cities in America.

But North Philadelphia, as well as the rest of the city, is notable for something that didn't happen. There was not another major riot, not even when Dr. King was assassinated in 1968 and other cities, like Washington, D.C., and Chicago, burned for days. Rizzo's iron-fisted policing may have had something to do with that, but so did the work of black leaders like Clarence Farmer, who became chairman of the Human Rights Commission and worked the streets to talk with young people and tamped down incidents before they spiraled out of control.

But 50 years later, the social pressures that triggered the riots – including a lack of jobs, income inequality, mass incarceration of young black men and perhaps most importantly, police misconduct and brutality – are still a clear and present danger. In the days right before the anniversary of the Philadelphia riot, the nation watched aghast as the police killing of an unarmed black man in Ferguson, Mo., triggered 10 nights of civil unrest that was met by a shroud of tear gas and heavily armed cops, amid scattered looting.

The question reverberates in 2014: Could it happen again? The answer of those who witnessed the furies of 1964 may not be exactly what Philadelphia wants to hear.

"It could definitely happen – there are so many fuses that are exposed," said Watson, his words echoing across an empty exhibition space at the African American Museum on a recent afternoon. "Until there's a reckoning of spirit and integrity and right-thinking about the people of the world, these fuses are ripe to be lit at any time, by any circumstances."