Editor’s Note: On the evening of August 28, 1964, fifty years ago today, Bulletin reporter William Naulty was sent to cover the apparent upheaval on Columbia Avenue in North Philadelphia. Here is his first person account, which reveals both the violence of the event as well as the prejudices and outlook of the day. The newspaper clipping is courtesy of the George D. McDowell Philadelphia Evening Bulletin Clippings Collection, Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries, Philadelphia, PA.
“‘Scared Half To Death,’ Reporter Says” is the second installment of a three-part series.
I drove up to 22d st. and Montgomery Av. last night to cover what was apparently an isolated incident, a misunderstanding.
By the time I got there the intersection was a tangle of policemen and crowds of milling, jeering Negroes.
Looking north on 22d st. through the glare of searchlights, I saw bricks, bottles and stones raining down.
I couldn’t see anyone on the roofs. Police figured the missiles were being thrown from behind the the houses, completely over the roofs.
I spent the rest of the night and early morning on the streets of North Philadelphia amidst rioting, looting and fighting.
Pleas of prominent Negroes and civil rights workers to halt the riot were useless. They were jeered and shouted down.
Even as they spoke over public-address systems, store windows were smashed only yards away. The mobs swarmed into stores and clutched everything they could carry away.
After checking into the 17th st. and Montgomery av. police station, I returned to 22d st. and Columbia av.
I stopped for a red light at 22d st.
Police Car Attacked
Milling crowds were all about my car, and I saw a police car coming south on 22d st. As it made a right turn into Columbia av. a brick and a bottle scored direct hits on the rear window. It smashed and the policemen were showered with glass.
The car made the turn; then it sped west on Columbia av.
The eyes of the mob turned on me and my car, the only other one within sight.
I decided not to wait any longer for that light to turn green. I stepped on the accelerator and went straight ahead.
There were hootings and jeers and then a thud on the roof.
I saw a piece of a brick bounce off my car and onto the street. I was scared half to death, but I just kept driving.
Police Sweep Cars
I got out of that area and returned to 17th and Montgomery by a different route. Policemen whose car windows had been smashed were there sweeping the glass out of their cars and shaking it out of their clothing.
Later, after hearing that a large contingent of police was at the scene, I returned to 22d and Columbia av.
The intersection was jammed with patrol cars and wagons.
The officers were pleading with the people–individually and in groups–to return to their homes.
The crowds retreated but did not disperse.
Stanley Branche, head of the Chester Committee for Freedom Now, arrived. He begged the people to get off the streets and back into their homes. He was pelted about the legs with bricks and bottles.
I walked with the police down several streets, Ridge av. and Columbia av. among them.
As police approached on each of the streets, the rioters would retreat slowly. Protected by this rear guard, mobs began smashing shop windows.
They used the bricks and stones and bottles that previously had been hurled into the streets.
All they had to do was stoop over and pick them up.
Crowd Breaks Windows
As each plate glass window was smashed, the crowd would cheer.
The crowds were being pushed in different directions spreading the riot throughout the neighborhood.
The looters always were a block ahead of the police vanguard.
Most of the mob was composed of young men and women and teen-agers.
The climbed into display windows, stealing clothing and anything else that wasn’t nailed down.
I saw two men walking along Columbia av. Each carried tow portable television sets–one in either hand.
Many looting suspects were taken into custody as I watched other just walked away with their spoils.
Often as police put suspects into patrol wagons, the mob gathered around and threatened them. There were frequent clashes between policemen and rioters.
At one point I noticed policemen escorting a white man. He was bleeding profusely from a cut on the back of his neck.
He told me he was a PTC bus driver and had stopped to pick up a passenger at 26th st. and Columbia av. As he opened the door, he saw the “passenger” had a brick in either hand.
One caught the bus driver on the back of his neck. Two other bricks smashed through the driver’s side window.
Judge Tries, But Fails
Later, I saw Judge Raymond Pace Alexander attempt to stop the rioting at Ridge and Columbia avs.
He tried to tell them that if they had problems, this was not the way to settle them.
A crowd of 200 screamed and shouted him down.
At 3:45 A.M., Cecil B. Moore, president of the local NAACP arrived from the shore.
He conferred with Police Commissioner Howard R. Leary, then got in a police car and was driven to one of the riot scenes. He told me to follow them, that he was going to try to quiet the crowd.
In the 1600 block Columbia av., Moore attracted a crowd of over 300, and they seemed to be listening to him–for a while. A number of Negro ministers also were gathered.
Police Grab Two
But as Moore spoke, policemen less than half a block away were taking two suspects into custody.
The crowd saw this.
Several shouted: “What are you gonna do about this, Cecil?”
They left Moore and surged around the police wagon where the suspects had been placed.
Moore tried in vain to make them come back.
They jeered and began chanting: “We want freedom.”
At 18th st. and Columbia av., I saw Rep. Robert N.C. Nix, Sr., the Negro congressman.
He stood sadly surveying the rioting.
“This is the most disgraceful thing I ever saw,” he said.