Why Philadelphia?

The story of the modern civil rights movement is usually told as a regional tale, the efforts of African-American Southerners and their Northern allies, black and white, to overturn Jim Crow segregation in the face of the heated and often violent opposition of white Southern politicians, sheriffs, and racist organizations like the Ku Klux Klan.  But there is another twentieth-century history of civil rights to be told, one that precedes, coincides with, and extends beyond the dramatic events that took place in the South of the late 1950s and early 1960s.  It is a story that is national in scope, with a different cast of characters, and a much more complex outcome than the Southern triumph over de jure segregation.  It is a story in which the city of Philadelphia plays a central role.  And it is a story that Civil Rights in a Northern City: Philadelphia begins to tell.

To tell the story of Civil Rights in a Northern City: Philadelphia is to expand our focus to the decades before the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, to the years of the Great Depression and World War II and even earlier to the Great Migration, which beginning in the 1910s brought growing number of black Southerners to the City of Brotherly Love.  At the same time, the story of Philadelphia’s role in the modern civil rights movement necessarily shifts our attention from the nonviolent protests and legislative triumphs of the early 1960s to later struggles over Black Power, Affirmative Action, and welfare rights. 

Most importantly, telling the story of the Northern civil rights movement requires us to see the problem of race in American society as a national rather than just a Southern issue.  Although racial segregation was not as institutionalized in Philadelphia as it was in the American South, segregation was practiced all across the city in hotels, restaurants, theaters, workplaces, trade unions, residential neighborhoods, even schools.  While Philadelphia's street cars were the target of a successful desegregation campaign in the 1860s, in 1944 President Franklin Roosevelt had to order the Army into Philadelphia to halt a wildcat strike of white transit workers protesting a federal order that the Philadelphia Transit Company (PTC) employ its first African-American trolley and bus drivers.  Moreover, it was commonplace to find help wanted and housing ads categorized by race in Philadelphia’s newspapers until the practice was banned in 1954.  A 1959 survey found that 93 percent of black workers believed the city’s employers were racially discriminatory in their hiring practices.  A year later, a new civil rights organization, the 400 Ministers, led the first of a series of consumer boycotts, which it called Selective Patronage campaigns (e.g.) against local employers who they charged with discriminatory employment practices.

The history of civil rights activism in twentieth-century Philadelphia begins with the founding of the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1912.  In its early years, the Philadelphia NAACP focused on defending the rights of the legions of black Southern migrants arriving in the city.  With the onset of World War I and the ban on European immigration, black Southerners migrated to the North in record numbers, taking advantage of labor shortages in Northern industrial plants.  By 1920, Philadelphia’s black population had grown to 134,220, a fifty percent increase from ten years earlier.  For the migrants, Philadelphia offered not just employment opportunities unavailable in the South, but also freedom from the daily humiliations of Jim Crow segregation.  However, the lack of segregation laws in the North did not shield the new migrants from racial discrimination or violence.  In 1917 and 1918, white mobs, including soldiers in military uniform, attacked black migrants three different times for seeking jobs in previously all-white industrial workplaces and housing in all-white neighborhoods, leaving two dead and scores injured.  Moreover, with the close of World War I and the return of the war veterans, black workers found themselves pushed out of the industrial jobs that had first drawn them to the city. By 1927, only 6.1 percent of black workers in Philadelphia were employed in the industrial sector.  Still, black migrants continued to flock northward from the Jim Crow South; during the 1920s, Philadelphia’s black population grew another sixty-four percent to 219,599.

The Great Depression temporarily turned the river of black migration to Philadelphia into a trickle.  However, despite or perhaps because of the hardships of the Depression years, civil rights activism in the city continued to flourish.  In 1935, the Philadelphia NAACP, led by the civil rights attorneys Raymond Pace Alexander and his wife Sadie T. M. Alexander, successfully lobbied the Pennsylvania Legislature to pass legislation banning racial discrimination in public accommodations in the state.  At the same time, a wide range of new organizations committed to the struggle for racial justice were emerging in the city.  In 1931, a group of religious activists formed the Young People’s Interracial Fellowship (YPIF) to promote racial dialogue between the city’s white and black congregations.  Six years later, YPIF became the Fellowship House, an interracial settlement house and nonviolence training center in North Philadelphia.  In 1936, Samuel Evans, who had migrated to Philadelphia from his native Florida in 1920, formed the Philadelphia Youth Movement and led a series of “Don’t Buy Where You Can’t Work” campaigns along the Columbia Avenue business district in North Philadelphia.  Then, in 1937, Philadelphia hosted the second national convention of the National Negro Congress (NNC), a coalition of civil rights, labor, religious, and left-wing groups headed by the African-American trade union leader A. Phillip Randolph.  The Philadelphia chapter of the NNC, under the direction of noted African-American educators and community activists Arthur Huff and Crystal Bird Faust, led protests against employment and housing discrimination and worked to build alliances between the black community and the trade union movement of the 1930s.

World War II revived the flow of black migrants to Philadelphia as the expansion of defense industries created new demand for labor.  But the new migrants encountered the same paradoxical mix of new opportunities and persistent racial discrimination that had greeted the first wave of migrants from the South.  Racial discrimination in 1940s Philadelphia was pervasive in both employment, where most skilled, technical, and professional occupations were closed to blacks, and housing, where racial barriers as well as the wartime housing shortage enabled landlords in black neighborhoods to profit from doubling up families, subdividing apartments, and charging exorbitant rents for dilapidated housing units.

World War II thus brought new urgency to the struggle for civil rights in Philadelphia. By 1945, the Philadelphia NAACP had grown to a membership of 16,700, making it one of the largest NAACP chapters in country.  In 1942, the NAACP joined the Fellowship Commission, a new coalition of civil rights, civil liberties, and religious groups established to coordinate efforts to combat racial and religious bias in Philadelphia.  During the 1944 transit strike, the NAACP and the Fellowship Commission worked together to prevent racial violence in the city and the strike itself was the result of wartime advances in civil rights.   In June 1941, President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 8802 banning racial discrimination in defense industries in return for A. Phillip Randolph’s agreement to cancel his plans to lead an all-black protest march on Washington.  Three years later, the federal Committee on Fair Employment Practices Commission (known as the FEPC) ordered the Philadelphia Transportation Company (PTC) to integrate its workforce of bus and trolley drivers.  On August 1, 1944, the company’s white workers responded by organizing a wildcat strike that crippled the city and its vital defense industries for six days.  Finally, on August 6, the Secretary of War ordered U.S. Army units into Philadelphia to operate the buses and trolleys.  For most black Philadelphians, this was the first time within memory that the federal government had taken aggressive action to defend their rights as citizens.


Following the war, Philadelphia emerged as a national model for the enactment and enforcement of civil rights legislation.  With Southern Congressmen effectively blocking civil rights bills at the federal level, Northern states and municipalities became laboratories for the efforts of civil rights advocates, who developed legislative remedies to racial segregation and discrimination.  The Fellowship Commission and its member organizations achieved their first major victory in 1948, when the Republican-controlled City Council passed a Fair Employment Practices ordinance, but their signal success came three years later.  In a campaign led by Sadie Alexander, the Commission successfully pressed for the inclusion of a ban on racial and religious discrimination in all municipal employment, services, and contracts in the city’s new Home Rule Charter, which voters adopted in April 1951.  The new City Charter was the first in the nation to include such anti-discrimination provisions and also provided for the establishment of new city agency, the Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations (PCHR), to enforce the ban on discrimination.  Seven months later, Raymond Pace Alexander was elected to represent North Philadelphia on the City Council on the same Democratic ticket that elected government reformer Joseph Clark to the Mayor’s office and ended fifty years of Republican machine rule of City Hall.

By the end of the 1950s, however, it was evident that Philadelphia’s civil rights reforms had not produced the kinds of fundamental change in race relations that civil rights had activists predicted.  The vast majority of black Philadelphians remained locked into the city’s worst neighborhoods and at the bottom of the city’s labor markets.  Two examples demonstrate the slow pace of racial change during these years.  In 1953, the Commission on Human Relations announced that it would begin investigating racial discrimination in the city’s building trades industry.   In an industry heavily dependent on government contracts and in which union-run hiring halls controlled employment, the City Charter’s ban on racial discrimination in municipal contracts seemed an ideal mechanism to open up employment in the skilled trades to black workers.  Yet, despite years of PCHR investigations as well as negotiations with the building trades unions, by 1963 the combined 7,300 members of the city’s plumbers, electricians, and steamfitters’ unions included only one African American and there was not a single black worker employed in a skilled position on a municipal construction site.

Persistent racial discrimination was also evident in postwar Philadelphia’s housing market.  The 1950s was the decade of the suburban housing boom, as federally-subsidized mortgages and mass production methods brought the “American Dream” of home ownership in a pastoral setting within reach of ever-increasing numbers of middle and working-class whites.  At the same time, real estate industry practices and federal mortgage policies that prioritized the preservation of all-white communities combined to lock blacks almost entirely out of the suburban housing boom.  In the ten years after World War II, only three subdivisions in suburban Philadelphia were marketed on a non-racial basis.  The population of the seven suburban counties surrounding the city grew by eighty-five percent between 1940 and 1960, while the white population within the city fell by thirteen percent.  For Philadelphia’s growing black middle-class, white flight to the suburbs gradually opened up middle-class residential neighborhoods in West and Northwest Philadelphia that previously had been closed to them.  But for the vast majority of black Philadelphians, the postwar housing boom left them confined to inner-city, high-density neighborhoods with aging and blighted housing stocks.  It was in these years that North Philadelphia emerged as the city’s largest and most densely-populated black neighborhood.  Between 1940 and 1960, the African-American percentage of North Philadelphia’s population grew from twenty-eight to sixty-nine percent.

Not surprisingly, the slow pace of racial change left many in Philadelphia’s civil rights community feeling discouraged.  Rev. Leon Sullivan, pastor of North Philadelphia’s Zion Baptist Church and a former member of the local NAACP executive board, would later describe the frustration of that time in this way:

The Philadelphia NAACP was one of the largest in the nation…but it could not move the giant enterprises to act on any significant scale… Philadelphia had a Commission on Human Relations, but it seemed helpless… I wrote to the mayor…but nothing happened.  The same for the governor and the president (Sullivan, p. 86-7).

In 1963, the center of the black community’s civil rights protests shifted from Leon Sullivan and the 400 Ministers to a revived and suddenly-militant Philadelphia NAACP.  Under the leadership of the newly-elected branch president, Cecil B. Moore, a criminal defense lawyer and former Republican Congressional candidate, the NAACP set out in the spring of 1963 to move civil rights protest in Philadelphia from the passive act of not-buying consumer products to the much more confrontational effort of mobilizing the black community to halt the construction of a new junior high school in the Strawberry Mansion section of Philadelphia.  Although the neighborhood surrounding the new school was predominately African-American and the vast majority of children who would attend the school once it was built were African-American, not a single black worker had been hired to a skilled position on the construction project.  Directly targeting the failure of both the city government and the Commission on Human Relations to enforce the City Charter’s ban on racial discrimination in municipal contracts, the Moore-led NAACP used union-style picket-line tactics to disrupt work on the construction site for nearly three weeks in May 1963.  Finally, on May 30, the Commission on Human Relations brokered a deal between the NAACP and the construction industry in which the contractors agreed to hire five black workers to skilled positions on the Strawberry Mansion site and they and the building trades unions agreed to begin negotiations on a strategy for increasing black employment in the skilled trades in Philadelphia.

The significance of selective patronage and the Strawberry Mansion construction site protests, however, went far beyond the number of jobs each protest created for black workers. Together, they demonstrated that protest strategies could be just as effective in the struggle against racial injustice in the North as they were against segregation in the South, that black Philadelphians could act in unison in pursuit of their shared interests, and that the black community could achieve its goals without having to depend on white allies.  As such, these protests signaled a major shift in the locus of civil rights activism in the city.  Whereas the activism of the immediate post-World War II years was characterized by interracial coalition-building and engagement with the formal political process, selective patronage and the construction protests heralded a new era of activism in which all- or predominately-black organizations used mass protest and community organization to pressure political officials and business leaders to meet their demands.  

It was not until the Columbia Avenue riots of August 1964 that it became evident that this new spirit of militancy would lead some in the black community, particularly young people, to question not only the pace of racial change in the city, but the very goals of integration. As the essays and documents on the Civil Rights in a Northern City: Philadelphia website reveal, the riot began on the night of Friday, August 28, 1964 in response to a rumor that the police officers had killed a pregnant black woman at 22nd Street & Columbia Avenue.  Though the rumor was false (the woman in question had resisted arrested, but had not been killed), it spoke to a widespread sense of grievance against the way that the Philadelphia police patrolled North Philadelphia’s poor and working-class black neighborhoods. Over the next three nights, groups of primarily young black Philadelphians roamed the streets of North Central Philadelphia, looting white-owned stores and skirmishing with the police.  The looting seems to have been motivated in part by a desire to acquire material goods and in part by anger at storeowners who lived outside the neighborhood and employed few if any neighborhood residents.  

But the most revealing aspect of the riots was the way that the crowds of black North Philadelphians responded to the calls of African-American civil rights and community leaders, includingRaymond Pace Alexander, Leon Sullivan and Cecil B. Moore, urging rioters to return to their homes.  “We don’t need no Cecil Moore,” one rioter yelled, “We don’t need civil rights.  We can take care of ourselves” (Berson, p. 18).  Like the urban rebellions that would strike other large cities in the years ahead, the Columbia Avenue riot was not a political protest with an explicit set of demands.  Still, it demonstrated a growing desire among black residents of inner-city neighborhoods for alternatives to the integrationist civil rights agenda, a desire that Black Power advocates would seek to meet later in the decade with their agenda of community control and political empowerment for black urban neighborhoods.

The Girard College protests began just seven months after the riots and they too constituted a moment of transition from civil rights to Black Power, albeit, as the essays and documents on this site reveal, in a very different way.  On the surface, the Philadelphia NAACP’s campaign to desegregate Girard seems to have fit well within the civil rights paradigm.  But for Cecil B. Moore and young activists, many of them members of the Black Militants, a group of former gang members Moore recruited to maintain the daily picket line, the Girard College campaign was about much more than school desegregation.  For them, the school’s all-white student body and ten-foot high walls—located as they were in the heart of black North Philadelphia—were symbols of the failure of the city and of its liberal civil rights coalition to take seriously the needs of poor and working-class black communities.  Drawing on the language of racial pride and unity to mobilize the ordinary residents of North Philadelphia to join their daily protests, Cecil B. Moore and the Black Militants turned the Girard protests into a symbolic campaign for black community control over North Philadelphia’s schools, its police, its very streets.

By telling the story of two of the landmark moments in the history of the struggle to achieve racial justice in Philadelphia, the 1964 Columbia Avenue riots and the desegregation of Girard CollegeCivil Rights in a Northern City: Philadelphia shows that the struggle for civil rights was as relevant to the black residents of Philadelphia as to black Southerners. The campaign to desegregate Girard College, which peaked with seven months of daily picketing at the college’s ten-foot high walls, forced the City of Brotherly Love to confront its own history of racial segregation and discrimination at the very moment that the nation was celebrating the downfall of de jure segregation in the South.  Similarly, the Columbia Avenue riots, like the selective patronage campaigns and the NAACP’s May 1963 protests against employment discrimination in the construction industry that preceded them, underscored that racial inequality was not a Southern issue, but rather a national one.  Through a wealth of fascinating photographs, newspaper clippings, film footage, and other materials, Civil Rights in a Northern City: Philadelphia documents these remarkable events and the personalities that shaped the drive for racial equality in Philadelphia, and ultimately the nation, during the 1950s and 1960s.

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Bauman, John F.  Public Housing, Race, and Renewal: Urban Planning in Philadelphia, 1920-1974.  Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 1987.

Berson, Lenora E.  Case Study of a Riot:  The Philadelphia Story.  New York, NY:  Institute of Human Relations Press, 1966.

Canton, David A.  Raymond Pace Alexander: A New Negro Lawyer Fights for Civil Rights in Philadelphia.  Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 2010.

Countryman, Matthew J.  Up South: Civil Rights and Black Power in Philadelphia.  Philadelphia, PA:  University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006.

Franklin, V.P.  Education of Black Philadelphia: Social and Educational History of a Minority Community.  Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1979.

Sugrue, Thomas J.  Sweet Land of Liberty: The Forgotten Struggle for Civil Rights in the North.  New York, NY: Random House, 2008.

Sullivan, Leon H.  Build, Brother, Build.  Philadelphia, PA: Macrae Smith, 1969.

Wolfinger, James.  Philadelphia Divided: Race and Politics in the City of Brotherly Love.  Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2007.

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