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From 2017: Who was Frank Rizzo? Nearly 30 years after his death, Philadelphians still don’t agree.

In the debate over Rizzo's statue, Philadelphia grapples anew with tough questions. Was he a jackbooted tyrant, or a blue-collar hero who maintained order and looked out for the little guy?

Philadelphia Police Commissioner Frank Rizzo, later elected mayor, extends his hand to greet a visitor to his office in the Philadelphia Police Department's headquarters in January 1968.
Philadelphia Police Commissioner Frank Rizzo, later elected mayor, extends his hand to greet a visitor to his office in the Philadelphia Police Department's headquarters in January 1968.Read moreAP File

Frank Rizzo has been dead and buried for 26 years now.

Feels like a long time ago when you stop and think about how different the world was when Rizzo was felled by a heart attack at age 70 in July 1991. America was five months removed from the end of the Gulf War. Barack Obama had just graduated from Harvard Law School, and Donald Trump was in his first marriage.

But the passage of time has not diminished the shadow that Rizzo casts over Philadelphia. The mere mention of his name elicits the same kinds of passionate reactions — either starry-eyed admiration or smoldering anger — that it did when his burly 6-foot-2 frame rumbled around City Hall in the 1970s and Police Headquarters in the late 1960s.

Now, the most visible reminder of Rizzo's reign — the 10-foot-tall statue of him planted outside the Municipal Services Building since 1998 — is the focus of debate.

More than 20,000 people have signed a petition to keep the statue where it is, but those calling for it to be toppled have been more visible, gathering in Center City last week by the thousands to link their cause to the protests in Charlottesville, Va., where a white supremacist's attack killed one person and injured dozens.

The argument here goes deeper than whether the 2,000-pound bronze Rizzo sculpture should spend the rest of its days across from City Hall, or tucked away in some musty museum.

Young and old Philadelphians are wrestling anew with a disagreement that has never been settled. Was Rizzo a jackbooted tyrant who went out of his way to punish black and gay people? Or was he the ultimate son of blue-collar South Philly, a big guy who used his clout to look out for neighborhoods of little guys?

The push to tear down Rizzo's likeness echoes the furor over Confederate monuments across the South. Seen by many as glorifying treason and slavery, those statues also honor men who, when they lived, were widely considered hometown heroes. Divisive as he was, in the gauzy memory of those who built the Rizzo statue, Hizzoner stood for a kind of gritty Philly pride.

In interviews with community leaders, politicians, activists and law enforcement officials, a picture of Rizzo emerges with just one certainty. His disputed legacy will never be disentangled from this city's DNA.

A fighter rises

One aspect of Rizzo's story isn't up for debate: He was a self-made man whose rise looked improbable on paper, a simple truth central to Rizzo's appeal.

He was born in 1920. His father, Ralph, had immigrated to the United States from Italy 12 years earlier and worked as a tailor until he landed a job as a Philadelphia police officer.

A high school dropout and neighborhood brawler, the younger Rizzo joined the Navy and was discharged a year later for being diabetic. He found his true calling in 1943: the Police Department. In just a few years, Rizzo developed a larger-than-life reputation for bravery — it included suffering burns on his hands while helping to put out a house fire — and flashes of cowboy-style justice. People started calling him "the Cisco Kid" after he waded into a street fight between two gangs.

It was his natural charisma, though, that pushed him into another stratosphere. Richard Sprague, the well-known lawyer, said he spent decades sharing meals with Rizzo, often inviting guests to meet the cop who would become an icon.

"On the private side, he was extremely charming, friendly, loved joking around, good jokes," Sprague said.

That changed in larger, more formal surroundings. "I always described it as, he felt uncomfortable with his own lack of education," Sprague said. "He wasn't sure of himself."

He said that he wasn't a racist; he only disliked criminals.

"He felt uncomfortable with his own lack of education.  He wasn't sure of himself."

— Richard Sprague, friend

Indeed, Rizzo was never self-conscious when he was in uniform. In the law enforcement world, Rizzo's word — his inner sense of right and wrong — was essentially the law of the land.

John McNesby's father was a city police officer during Rizzo's heyday. "Rizzo was all about fighting crime," said McNesby, president of Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 5. "It was a whole different atmosphere. Was he a law-and-order guy? Yeah. Did he cut some corners? Probably. But the people at the top thought he was the greatest thing since sliced bread."

Above all, he was a cop's cop, supporting and defending his fellow brethren at all costs.

Perhaps because of that, Rizzo was often viewed in the city's black community as a force of oppression and fear.

Kenneth Salaam was 16 when he showed up on the first day of protests outside Girard College, then a boarding school for poor, white, male orphans on May 1, 1965. The protests were led by the fiery lawyer and activist president of the Philadelphia chapter of the NAACP, Cecil B. Moore.

Rizzo commanded the uniformed police assigned to the protests, which lasted more than seven months. "When we were out there demonstrating, one night he told the motorcycle police to run us over with their motorcycles. I was there," said Salaam, now 68. "We started running, but one of the girls got hit."

The tough tactics didn't hurt Rizzo's career prospects. In May 1967, then-Mayor James H.J. Tate appointed Rizzo police commissioner. Six months into his tenure, about 3,500 students left their classrooms and gathered in front of the old Philadelphia Board of Education office at 21st Street and the Parkway to demand courses on African American history.

In what some reports called a "police riot," 22 people were seriously injured and 57 arrested as officers pursued the students.

"When we were out there demonstrating, one night he told the motorcycle police to run us over with their motorcycles. I was there."

— Kenneth Salaam, who was 16 and protesting at Girard College in 1965

Amid the chaos, Karen Asper Jordan said, she heard a city official ask Rizzo to be careful about not harming the students because "they are children." But Jordan said she heard Rizzo shout back to police to "Get their asses!"

While other reports quote Rizzo as saying "Get their black asses," Jordan said she didn't hear him say black.

Larry Kane, the former television anchor, was there that day. Rizzo denied saying, "Get their black asses," but Kane said he showed him proof on film. "He said, 'Oh, my goodness, did I do that?'" Kane recalled. "He was embarrassed. He was very rarely embarrassed."

The tactics Rizzo's police department relied on to quell black protesters were not uncommon in America in the 1960s. What is usually left unsaid is that many whites — in Philadelphia and across the country — did not question such means.

David Kairys, a professor at Temple University Law School, was a civil rights lawyer who often clashed with Rizzo during the 1960s. The Philadelphia Police Department was at that time shooting unarmed people at twice the rate of the New York Police Department. "We were more famous for police misconduct than for cheesesteaks," Kairys said.

Four years after he took the reins of the Police Department, Rizzo set his sights on an even bigger prize: City Hall.

Rizzo the ruler

For his 1971 mayoral bid, Rizzo traded on his super-cop persona with slogans like "Firm But Fair" while running an unorthodox campaign. He avoided debating his Democratic primary opponents, U.S. Rep. William J. Green and State Rep. Hardy Williams. He presented himself to the public as the only candidate who wasn't just another politician, and he didn't answer questions from reporters covering the race — an approach Donald Trump would revisit to great success 45 years later.

Though still a majority, the city's white population was shrinking — from 73 percent in 1960 to 66 percent in 1970. By the time Rizzo left office, whites were 58 percent of a dramatically smaller city.

Rizzo also spoke directly to white residents who felt threatened by growing societal changes, casting himself as the only one who could bring order to a world gone mad. "The fact that I was elected showed that people are tired of permissiveness, pornography, fear, and guys who walk on the American flag instead of under it," Rizzo said after his general election victory over Republican W. Thacher Longstreth.

"Was he a law-and-order guy? Yeah. Did he cut some corners? Probably. But the people at the top thought he was the greatest thing since sliced bread."

— John McNesby, FOP president

In a 1978 documentary, Longstreth offered a different reading of campaign messages such as "Rizzo Means Business": "The way that was interpreted, by both blacks and whites, is that he's going to keep the blacks in their place."

Homicides and property crimes spiked dramatically after Rizzo became mayor. A federal study in 1974 found an enormous disparity between the number of crimes committed in Philadelphia compared with what police had reported. New York's police commissioner accused the Rizzo administration of falsifying its crime data.

The city lost 140,000 jobs during his two terms in office, and the population tumbled by more than 260,000. While some might well remember Rizzo as a grandfatherly figure who was happy to help find a government job for a friend or relative, the contracts he doled out to municipal unions helped launch the city's current pension crisis.

These are the standards by which all mayors are judged, but Rizzo is still often remembered by those who supported him as a leader who presided over better times. Perhaps because much of the dialogue around the man revolves around race.

Hardy Williams' son, State Sen. Anthony H. Williams, argues that there was a difference between Rizzo the cop and Rizzo the politician. "I came from a family that protested his actions when he was commissioner," Williams said, "but he did evolve significantly as mayor."

Williams said Rizzo boosted the number of African Americans employed by the city and provided crucial funding for the African American Museum in Philadelphia.

"If you talk to African Americans who were close to Rizzo, they would tell you he was clearly a guy who saw things right or wrong, with not a lot of gray in between," Williams said. "It didn't matter if you were Italian American or African American."

Sandra Fulwood's late husband, Lt. Anthony Fulwood, was one of the black police officers on Rizzo's security detail. "Frank Rizzo was like a father to my husband," she said. "We didn't see him as a racist. It was racist times, and he just happened to be a mirror of those times."

These charitable views of Rizzo ignore the larger picture, which grew more troublesome as time wore on. The city faced lawsuits while Rizzo was mayor over hiring practices that discriminated against black Police and Fire Department applicants.

The U.S. Department of Justice even sued Rizzo and other city officials in 1979 over police brutality. And then there was the city's deepening conflict with the radical group MOVE, which turned deadly in 1978 when Officer James Ramp was fatally shot during one standoff, and one unarmed member of the group was beaten by police.

Rizzo's second term as mayor demonstrated his ability to inspire animosity — and adoration.

"He was the symbol ... of a lot of anger and a lot of anti-black feeling. And he was willing to see his image used in a way that wasn't pretty."

— Zack Stalberg, then-Daily News reporter

He won reelection in 1975 despite feuding with leaders of the local Democratic Party. (Rizzo even proposed launching his own maverick version of the city party.) He gave generous contracts to unionized city workers during the campaign, and pledged not to raise taxes. Yet shortly after winning, he moved to raise property taxes 30 percent and wage taxes 29 percent.

A month into his term, recall petitions were circulating. The cause united tax-averse voters with longtime Rizzo opponents among white liberals and African Americans. His foes needed at least 141,000 voter signatures; they got more than 211,000.

It wouldn't matter. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled later that year that the provision of the City Charter allowing the recall of elected officials was unconstitutional. The mayor survived.

Two years later, Rizzo wanted to change the City Charter provision that limits mayors to two terms.

"Black leaders want to make it a black-and-white thing," Rizzo said while campaigning for the charter change. "I'm asking white people and blacks who think like me to vote like Frank Rizzo … I say, vote white, and blacks that think like me, and there's a lot of them."

Philadelphia voters overwhelmingly defeated the charter change referendum.

But the phrase "vote white" followed Rizzo into history.

Gregory Harvey, chairman of the 1976 recall effort, saw it as a continuation of racism for political purposes by Rizzo.

"The white racist rhetoric was also what prevailed in the 1975 second election of Rizzo," Harvey said. "It was pretty virulent in that election, as well as in the 1978 effort to get the charter change referendum approved."

Zack Stalberg, who covered Rizzo for the Daily News and later became its editor, said Rizzo's relationship to race is more nuanced.

"He was the symbol, especially in the early years, of a lot of anger and a lot of anti-black feeling," Stalberg said. "And he was willing to see his image used in a way that wasn't pretty. But I can't remember the real Rizzo actually behaving in a racist way or saying racist things."

W. Wilson Goode Sr. defeated Rizzo when the former mayor tried to make a comeback in the 1983 Democratic primary and again in 1987 when Rizzo ran as a Republican.

Looking back, Goode calls Rizzo "the first coming of Donald Trump," a politician who played on fear to build a following.

"He appealed to race and was able to get a passionate following," Goode said. "I think Donald Trump is much the same way, in that he appeals to mostly white people who have strong views about African Americans and immigrants."

An unsettled symbol

To City Councilwoman Helen Gym, among the loudest voices of elected officials lately calling for removal of Rizzo's statue, the lesson is that the city doesn't need to erase Rizzo from its past — it just needs to find a different way to reflect on his legacy.

"Frank Rizzo was known and loved by the people who knew and loved him," Gym said. "But putting that statue in such a centralized location sends a different message. We need that space to be welcoming to all."

The calls from public officials for discussing the statue's location strikes some of Rizzo's most devoted supporters as a personal insult. Take Jody Della Barba, Rizzo's former secretary, who recently wrote a Facebook post in which she derided Gym as a bigot and called on the councilwoman to resign.

"This [statue] is a symbol of law and order and removing it only shows the hate for the hard working good people of all races who are the fabric of this city," Della Barba wrote. "Frank Rizzo dedicated his life to this city and the lies of the a few jealous people should not be given any credibility."

Whether she realized it or not, Della Barba’s comments — later removed — neatly circled back to the battle lines Rizzo drew in life. He believed he represented honest, decent people who felt marginalized and shortchanged, even if history tells you they weren’t.