Searching for Richardson Dilworth
By 1951, when Joe Clark was elected mayor and Richardson Dilworth was elected D.A., the reformers could no longer content themselves with mere dreams.
Clark left after one term. Being mayor didn’t really suit his crusader’s temperament; at heart, he was a misanthrope, an ideologue, and a purist. “He was a hell of a good mayor,” Dilworth said, “a really good mayor, but I don’t think he ever really enjoyed it.” Clark’s real ambition was the U.S. Congress. In 1956, he ran and won. Dilworth replaced him as mayor, beating his opponent, Thacher Longstreth, by some 130,000 votes.
Dilworth got to work. Unlike Clark, he made it a point to answer as many letters from city residents as possible: letters about the noise of a jackhammer resurfacing Walnut Street in the middle of the night (“We are carrying out the work as humanely as possible,” Dilworth replied), complaints about Dilworth’s habit of taking winter vacations in Florida (“I work very hard at my job … I have found that in order to perform my task with vim and enthusiasm it is important to take an occasional vacation”), naked pleas to do something about the reign of hoodlumism represented by teen muggers armed with knives. Dilworth wasn’t above telling cranks they were cranks; he once wrote to a grumpy property owner, “From the tone of your letter I am inclined to believe that you are the kind of person who makes it very difficult to properly govern a city,” and he advised his press aide, Clifford Brenner, to respond to crackpot requests with brisk efficiency: “Cliff, I would suggest a constructively evasive reply such as ‘Drop dead, schmuck.’” But more often, Dilworth really did try to reason with people, and he responded with a poignant sincerity, especially to the letters about the skyrocketing crime rate that used code to pin the problem on poor blacks. He wrote back to racists and tried to explain the root causes of urban violence. “They are too often exploited,” he wrote of poor African-Americans, “and they are the last hired and first fired … the results of all this are bound to be explosive.” He was so earnest(6), it was damn near tragic. In 1961, he attended a community meeting in South Philly to quietly explain why a $40-a-year parking tax was good for the neighborhood: It would free up the car-choked streets so that trash trucks and fire engines could weave their way through. Furious residents pelted him with vegetables and garbage. He lashed out, calling them “greasers,” and regretted it to his dying day.
6. Dilworth’s achievements in civil rights were grounded in personal interactions. As D.A., he hired black lawyers and gave them major cases. When a racist Common Pleas judge complained about having to hear arguments from blacks, Dilworth made sure to pack that judge’s courtroom with his best black assistant district attorneys. His private law firm was the first major firm in the city to have a Jewish partner. And he hired the brilliant black lawyer William T. Coleman, who had clerked for two Supreme Court justices but couldn’t land an interview at any other Philly firm. As Coleman later recalled, Dilworth would call him up on the phone when he wanted to talk to him, saying, “Is it all right if I come down, Bill?” Then he’d come down and stand outside Coleman’s office with exaggerated formality and politeness, and knock oh-so-respectfully and say, “Is it all right if I come in now?,” when of course he could have just barged in.