10 years ago I was working on an article about the local civil rights movement for the now-defunct Legacies magazine of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. I came across this flyer in the papers of Thelma McDaniel, a black Philadelphian who collected paraphernalia related to the city’s Civil Rights and Black Power movements.
I was intrigued. I knew that it had to be a reaction to then Police Commissioner Frank Rizzo’s ordering an attack on black high school students who were peacefully protesting in front of the Board of Education building at 21st and Winter Streets. As a teacher of Philadelphia’s first-in-the-nation required African American history course, I had taught my students each year about the November 17, 1967 student walkout in which high school students from across the city converged on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway to demand more black studies courses, more black teachers and administrators, the right to wear dashikis and afros to school, and so forth.
Although Board of Education president, and former Philadelphia mayor, Richardson Dilworth and school superintendent Mark Shedd were receptive to the student demands, the protest devolved into chaos when Rizzo brought in busloads of police and allegedly told the officers to “get their black asses.” Kids were viciously beaten and 57 students and their adult advisors were arrested. Dozens were injured, some severely enough to be hospitalized.
African American adults were justified in their outrage at the police and their leader. But I wondered about a boycott as a strategy to express their anger. It seemed odd to me to think that refraining from shopping in the city between late November and Christmas would lead to Rizzo’s dismissal. Were Philadelphia merchants meant to pressure Mayor James Tate into dismissing his police commissioner? Had any similar tactics ever worked in the past?
Reverend Leon Sullivan famously led a series of “selective patronage” campaigns in which black consumers boycotted certain brands (e.g. Tastykake) and stores (e.g. Acme), but these actions were highly focused. Reverend Sullivan and his colleagues in the black clergy would meet with a company and make specific demands for the hiring and promotion of black workers. If these demands were not met, a well-coordinated message went out from pulpits and was spread through a network of barber shops, beauty shops, and other black establishments. This method yielded success time and again.
I was curious to learn about the origins and impact, if any, of this much more ambitious and much more diffuse black-organized Rizzo boycott. I set out to better understand this flyer that had perplexed me for a decade.
An Inquirer article about a mass meeting of the black community held on Sunday, November 19, 1967 revealed that the idea of the commercial boycott was presented in tandem with a planned school boycott. Instead of going to their Philadelphia public schools, black students were to report to Freedom Schools set up at churches around the city. Both measures were approved by the voice vote of the approximately 800 meeting attendees.
On the Monday following the walkout, dozens of students did indeed attend the Freedom Schools, but not enough to make a dent in normal attendance levels at public schools. About 300 Benjamin Franklin High School students left their Broad and Spring Garden building to hold a silent protest at the Police Administration Building. A similar number of Simon Gratz students held a silent march around their school building with the permission of principal Marcus Foster, a progressive educator who became the superintendent of the Oakland Unified School District before being assassinated in 1973 by the Symbionese Liberation Army.
Another rally was held at the Police Administration Building on Tuesday, November 21. According to the meticulous records of the police civil disobedience unit, anti-war and pro-labor groups organized the demonstration to support the students involved in the walkout and to call for Rizzo’s ouster. Although these groups were mostly white, the approximately 140 participants included a broad swath of African American civil rights and education activists.
On Wednesday, November 22, about 500 predominantly white protestors demonstrated at City Hall in support of the black students and against police brutality. They carried signs with messages such as “Rizzo Must Go,” “Control Your Police Mayor Tate,” and, “We Support Black Student Rights.” An interesting, timely digression: one of the organizers of the march was Temple University professor John Raines who in 2014 admitted to driving the getaway car for a group that stole FBI files which revealed the agency’s misdeeds and eventually led to the fall of J. Edgar Hoover. The purloined documents also spurred the creation of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence charged with overseeing the FBI, CIA, and National Security Administration. The Intelligence Committee, of course, conducted the impeachment hearings on Capitol Hill this month.
According to the records of the civil disobedience unit, an NAACP-sponsored “Freedom March at City Hall” on the Friday, November 24 never really got off the ground. The official report poignantly described a mother, son, and daughter carrying a sign saying, “Our Children are Being Taught White Supremacy in School Because of the Lack of Negro History.” A fear of violence may have kept people away. Additionally, some of the expected speakers, like Walter Palmer, lead adult organizer of the walkout, were attending hearings about the previous week’s events in City Hall courtrooms.
As the days passed, the description of events shifted and the pressure seemed to mount on School District of Philadelphia superintendent Mark Shedd and Board of Education president Richardson Dilworth. The “student demonstrators” of early coverage in the Inquirer and Daily News became “black radicals” and “black power activists.” Policemen circulated petitions in support of Rizzo and demanding the ouster of both Shedd and Dilworth. Philadelphia Fraternal Order of Police president John Harrington declared, “We need new members on the Board of Education because if Dick Dilworth wants to be the Pied Piper of anarchy and permit students—thousands of them—to take off from school whenever they want and demonstrate in the streets, then it’s plain the board is surrendering.” Even school board members came out against their president. Board member Robert L. Sebastian faulted both Dilworth and Shedd for “consulting with children who were cutting classes.”
Furthermore, civil disobedience records indicate that the anti-war activists turned their attention back to fighting against the draft and the nation’s role in Vietnam and away from Rizzo’s tactics and the demands of the black students.
Meanwhile, coercion increased on the adult organizers who had worked with the students. Walter Palmer was deemed an “adult agitator” and threatened with losing his job as a staff member of the federal Model Cities planning council. Palmer and the other adults involved in the November 17, 1967 walkout became a convenient scapegoat as the school district and police department mended fences.
On December 1, only two weeks after the walkout, Dilworth had a “friendly” luncheon meeting with Police Commissioner Rizzo and ordered an injunction “to prevent outside influences from conducting activities which are disruptive to the normal program of the schools.” Dilworth had been co-opted. Rizzo had come out on top.
In looking through Mayor Tate’s papers at the Philadelphia City Archives, it is clear that his support for the police chief never wavered. In late December 1967 Rizzo issued a response to a press release issued by Ellen Sunstein, chairperson of Americans for Democratic Action (ADA) in which she bemoaned the deterioration of police-community relations in general and the events of November 17 in particular. An excerpt from Rizzo’s reply: “While we seek answers to a better Philadelphia, let not the militant extremists under the cloak of civil rights, riot, destroy, loot or attempt to burn down our city. That, Mrs. Sunstein, is lawlessness—make no mistake about it, and it should and will be crushed.”
Mayor Tate asked his staff to send copies of Rizzo’s full statement to all members of the city’s congressional delegation with a cover letter stating, “Mayor Tate has requested that your attention be directed to what he terms ‘the serious nature of ADA erosion of law and order.’”
In spite of the peaceful and organized nature of the student demonstration, in spite of the initial receptivity of the Board of Education president and the district superintendent, and in spite of the support of white progressives, the events of November 17, 1967 ended up strengthening Frank Rizzo’s hold on power.
Alas, the commercial boycott called for on the flyer seems to have never gained traction, although the idea remained something activists continued to discuss. The Daily News reported on a “group of Negro students playing hookey” who “tried some pressure tactics on Thatcher Longstreth, executive vice president of the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce.” After meeting with the students, Longstreth told reporters, “I feel that the vast majority of Philadelphians will probably support Rizzo, and I am one of those.”
On Saturday, December 2, about 50 public school teachers gathered in North Philadelphia where they affirmed their support for teaching black history and for Rizzo’s removal. The teachers called for a boycott of Lit’s, Strawbridge & Clothier, and Gimbel’s—three of the city’s main department stores—apparently to no avail.
The Philadelphia Tribune described a meeting held on Sunday, December 10 at the Heritage House at Broad and Master Streets that attracted about 100 people who clung to idea of a “black Christmas.” They vowed to only purchase the “bare necessities of life” and to do so out of town. The following was offered as a rationale to share with disappointed kids on Christmas morning: “We will have to explain to our children why they will not receive toys. We will tell them that not getting presents may seem terrible, but that later in life, they will discover that the power structure is denying them things much more important than toys. They might as well learn now to be prepared for deprivation of their very birthright.”
Unrealistic as it might have been, I still have to admire the commitment to principal and faith in their brethren that was displayed by the organizers of the Rizzo boycott. I still wonder about what would have happened if the vast majority of the black community refused to make purchases during the most commercial of all seasons. The allure of Christmas shopping, however, seems to have been irresistible.
I recently spoke with Walter Palmer who is now 85 years old and was recently honored by City Council for his life of activism. “I never thought a boycott would work,” said Palmer. “People are not going to bypass their vital interests.” Palmer, however, was not able to share his point of view when the plan was first presented on that Sunday in 1967 after the walkout. He was in jail at the time.
And, Frank Rizzo, far from being removed his position, gained nationwide acclaim for his reaction to the walkout. He continued to aggressively suppress black activism and to promulgate his “law and order” approach to policing. Three years after the walkout he was elected to his first term as Mayor of Philadelphia.
To learn more about Philadelphia’s Frank Rizzo years, watch “The Fight: 1965 – 1978,” part of the “Philadelphia: The Great Experiment” series.