As the nation marked the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington last week, the civil-rights movement was mostly remembered as a morality tale set in the South. But millions of black people who migrated north in the mid 20th century faced a different Jim Crow. Philly’s place in this struggle for racial equality does not make for a flattering story — and should not be overlooked.
Discrimination played out in the neighborhoods, where working-class whites meted out violent protests to new arrivals, while middle-class whites moved to suburbs like Levittown, which explicitly barred the sale of homes to blacks. Of the 120,000 new housing units built in metro Philly between 1946 and 1953, only 347 were open to black residents.
And it played out in workplaces like Sun Ship, where the arch-conservative Pew family maintained a segregated workplace. While unions under the Congress of Industrial Organizations fought for workers of all colors, Philly’s white transit workers went on a hate strike in 1944 to protest the promotion of black workers to trolley-car drivers. President Franklin D. Roosevelt finally sent 5,000 troops to protect black workers and break the strike.
Philly also produced powerful forces for civil rights. In the 1960s, Rev. Leon Sullivan led “Don’t buy where you can’t work” campaigns, urging black people to boycott businesses like Tastykake. And Cecil B. Moore turned the NAACP into a mass movement based in the North Philadelphia ghetto. The group protested the exclusion of black children from Girard College — where deputy police commissioner and future mayor Frank Rizzo punched a demonstrator in the face. The Congress of Racial Equality sat in at Mayor James Tate’s office to protest the white construction crews at the Municipal Services Building, while the NAACP picketed the Strawberry Mansion Junior High site. In the ’60s and ’70s, the welfare-rights movement demanded respect for public-assistance recipients. Roxanne Jones, a leader of the movement, became the first black woman elected to the state Senate in 1984.
Today, building trades remain mostly white in a city that is not. The flight of industry has made wins by workers of all races ring hollow.
The history of Northern racism is perhaps more dangerous to remember, because it explains why so many black people in Philly still live in impoverished neighborhoods and so many young people have a greater expectation of prison than of a decent job. Fifty years later, this city remains an extraordinarily segregated one.
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