Is Philadelphia Going Black?

The new separatist movement has made a lot of people jumpy.

More than one urbanologist has projected the city of the future as a barricaded and palisaded white upper-class citadel. It will be surrounded by a series of almost feudal, ethnic city-states, some rich, some poor, some black, some white—the suburbs of the future. The one thing they’ll have in common is a sense of abandonment, and of being cut off from the heart of the business district and soul of the city itself.

In this version of Future America, court orders—like our own current Justice Department brutality suit—and never-ending concessions to the various voting-bloc minorities would relegate the police to impotent watchmen. The only effective protection would have to be provided by private rent-a-cops, like the Intertel organization that guards the casino at Resorts International in Atlantic City. These private armies, that only the rich could afford, would eventually become the mercenary brigades of post-industrial America.

This eerie vision of the New Dark Age isn’t science fiction as far as Philadelphia is concerned. It is simply a predictable outcome of current patterns of real estate speculation and development. This is the ultimate result of the “recycling” of people and neighborhoods and the “deconcentration” of the urban poor that the private sector and the federal government are pushing, but that black politicians are resisting to the death.

This summer the entire black body politic became unglued. No longer would white power brokers be able to depend upon a large and loyal black voting bloc in the annual wars that the Democratic Party waged.

Just a couple of elections ago, blacks had been as reliable to the Democratic Party as white blue-collar labor unionists; but that coalition of labor, blacks and Democratic liberalism is now a thing of the past.

Beginning with the crucial “vote white” charter-change defeat that Rizzo suffered last November, blacks wised up and began voting exclusively in the black interest.

Last spring, in the Democratic primary to choose a successor to Rizzo, Charlie Bower, a lawyer and one-time mainstream black Democrat—he had been a deputy mayor under Jim Tate—mobilized black voters to a degree of efficiency never before experienced in Philadelphia.

Bowser ended up with a staggering 90% of the black vote and 48% of the total votes cast on the Democratic side, if you believe the count. Bower claimed he didn’t; that the election had been stolen from him and set about trying to prove it in court. After long, agonizing weeks Bill Green was certified the winner and Bowser found himself cast in the role of a petty sore loser.

During that entire time Bowser had been meeting secretly with the man he lost to—or his representative—and working out the terms of his own eventual and inevitable surrender.

A lot of Green people feel that Bowser knew all along that the election had been honest, but he used the ploy of crying foul in an attempt to negotiate his way into a position of power with the new Green administration. But this finagling far from the madding crowd of his own cadre of black activists—the Black Political Convention.

As far as they were concerned—flushed as they were with the first stirrings of ballot box clout—the election had been a rip-off.

As the spring wore on, Bowser’s rhetoric became more and more inflammatory and his caricaturing of the Bill Green primary victory as a white plot all the more convincing.

All that this did was legitimize the most unreasonable, irrational fringe of black separatists on the political horizon. The louder Bowser talked and the more fervently his audiences “Amen-ed,” the better they looked.

The Black Political Convention included a formidable array of community activists and black power brokers. There was State Representative Dave Richardson, for example, a militant denizen of Germantown, who wears a dashiki and tribal jewelry to sessions in the Pennsylvania General Assembly and who preaches a brand of separatist philosophy just this side of the Panthers.

Other elements of this group included the Fattah family of West Philadelphia. Sister Falaka Fattah and her sons operate the Muslim-inspired House of Umoja, near 57th and Media in the heart of the city’s most politicized black district, West Philadelphia.

This halfway house for problem-prone young men is regarded in some sectors as a valuable private social welfare agency. Others, however, are troubled by the black separatism that seems to characterize the strident anti-mainstream Umoja philosophy.

There were others, as well—men like wily old Sam Evans, hardly a black separatist, but a shrewd opportunist without peer, who saw in the Bowser-inspired rebellion against the Democratic Party a priceless opportunity for self-aggrandizement.

Other key operatives in the Bowser camp were City Councilman Lucien Blackwell, former Secretary of the Commonwealth, C. DeLores Tucker, and those advocates of squatters’ rights, John and Milton Street. Eventually, practically all of these powermongers adopted Charles Bowser’s new anti-white stance.

Meanwhile, behind the scenes, Bowser and the Green forces were still negotiating. Bowser made some suggestions to the white Democrats. He told them that blacks might be led back into the fold if a victorious Green would mend fences within the party by engineering the election of Bowser as city chairman of the Democratic Party and Blackwell as president of the new City Council. Other demands were just as bold.

The Green forces were outraged by Bowser’s continuously escalating terms and decided to stop dealing.

It’s still unclear just how aware Bowser’s people were of this backroom bargaining. But at least one prominent Bowser supporter, Lucien Blackwell, claims innocence.

In fact, as far as most black politicians are concerned, Bowser sold Blackwell out the day last summer that he announced he was going to hold a press conference to endorse publicly Bill Green. At this point Blackwell, a longshoremen’s union official, was in Miami attending a labor convention. But Bowser was back home, calling in a few of his favorites and attempting to line up support for his upcoming Green endorsement. When he broke this startling news to his people one night—the news that they were supposed to stop being black separatists and become Green supporters, Bowser was faced with a rebellion within his own ranks.

His audience’s reaction verged on violence. He left the auditorium that night shaken and unsure.

The next day he was scheduled to attend a joint press conference with Bill Green and announce his support—support which Green correctly figured, at that point, would be vital to repair the shredded Democratic Party.

But shortly before Bowser was to meet with Green, Lucien Blackwell, still in Miami, dramatically altered the course of events. He got in touch with Bowser by phone and reaffirmed his own intention to run for mayor on a third party ticket—an intention, by the way, that Blackwell assumed Bowser was ready, willing and able to support.

That morning Lucien Blackwell called in to one of radio’s black talk shows in Philadelphia from his hotel room in Miami and announced over the air that the black community should remain on hold.

Bowser got the message. He proceeded to stun Bill Green and the rest of the city by backing out of the press conference at the last moment and handing Green a terse statement on a street corner in downtown Philadelphia which announced his abrupt resignation from public life. What remained of Green’s dream of bringing black Democrats back into the fold was gone forever.

After that, black separatism became a constant in black political dealings. Bowser’s ex-colleagues promised a wary allegiance to Blackwell’s bizarre Consumer ticket experiment and drifted even more towards the left—toward the Richardsons and the Streets.

Other events of the city further fueled the fires of separatism. Blacks rioted in Southwest Philadelphia; whites were beaten and stabbed; and a black child was killed by a white sniper.

The U.S. Justice Department’s suit against the police for alleged brutality became another instant black rallying point and even those dreary remnants of the MOVE cult made their presence felt in downtown Philadelphia on a daily basis.

The national scene reflected Philadelphia’s black catharsis. The White House’s firing of Andrew Young as UN Ambassador touched off the kind of black outcry that had not been heard since the civil rights ’60s. Young had been fired as a result of a secret meeting with the Palestinian Liberation Organization in violation of White House promises to Israel that such meetings would never take place.

In retaliation, some of the country’s top black leaders started making contacts with the PLO and set about the absolutely unprecedented step of conducting their own foreign policy with an avowed enemy of the United States.

Against a background of turmoil like this, it’s little wonder that the summer of ’79 saw blacks in Philadelphia becoming more insular, more racially introspective and more distrustful of the white power structure than ever before.

This massive, black movement away from the center of mainstream politics leaves many unanswered questions—questions which will probably determine not only the configuration of political coalitions of the future but also the nature and racial atmosphere of Philadelphia in the 1980s.

1 2 3 4 5 < Previous Next >View as One Page

Be respectful of our online community and contribute to an engaging conversation. We reserve the right to ban impersonators and remove comments that contain personal attacks, threats, or profanity, or are flat-out offensive. By posting here, you are permitting Philadelphia magazine and Metro Corp. to edit and republish your comment in all media.

  • Stevens

    ” … $40,000-$50,000 shells and $100,000-and-up row houses are suddenly blossoming on former slum blacks.”

    Needs editing … I think you meant “slum blocks?”