Is Philadelphia Going Black?

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

None of these novel developments guarantee that Philadelphia is turning black any more than census statistics alone do. But they do portend, however, the day when Philadelphia’s white power structure will really have to share authority.

Each of the mayoral candidates this fall—Green, Marston and Blackwell, have already pledged, either privately or publicly, that the next managing director of Philadelphia will be a black man.

Bill Green, in fact, may already have his eye on Wilson Goode, the highly respected, black head of the Pennsylvania Public Utilities Commission, which regulates about $10 billion worth of gas, electric and transportation business.

In addition to this, all of the candidates have pretty much promised, at least by innuendo, that most of those programs in the city deal with housing or community development will be headed by blacks.

The concessions don’t stop there. All of the candidates have also made it clear that the black community will be permitted to exercise virtual veto power over the choice of the next police commissioner.

As far as Green is concerned, one of his close aides predicted, “If he’s elected, those first 100 days will be like Roosevelt’s. We’re going to get as many high-visibility blacks in office as we possibly can.”

The racial undercurrent in this city today is treacherous. The fear and loathing that consumed other great Northeastern cities in the 1960s—including our own during the Columbia Avenue riot in August 1964—seem to be gripping Philadelphia anew.

The crucial difference in this time and place is that Philadelphia is reeling, not from random violence, but from premeditated politicking.

For the first time, those poor, black “throwaway people” whom State Representative Milton Street purports to speak for; and that ravenous, demanding underclass of poor blacks that have become the transgenerational clients of federal handouts and city social services, finally got together this year with well-heeled, well-educated middle- and upper-class blacks in Wynnefield and Mt. Airy. As a result of this unity, they may yet elect themselves a mayor, a city council and a slate of City Hall row officers.

About 45% of registered Democrats are black now and that 45% can determine the political complexion of this city more certainly than any other ethnic group before them.

Voter registration became an extension of black pride last year, brought on as a reaction against Rizzo’s charter change and Vote White electioneering.

The specter of Frank Rizzo Forever did for the cause of black power what 20 years of civil rights activism couldn’t begin to accomplish.

Black politicians suddenly find themselves with enough of a plurality in Philadelphia to elect a black mayor, completely bypassing the traditional electoral process of party politics.

In a three-man primary race for mayor, the blacks can vote exclusively black and win handily. Even in a two-man race—literally pitting black against white—a combination of white apathy and frenzied black organization can just as readily produce a black winner.

The day of white party bosses appeasing black Democrats with patronage and promises is over. Bill Green learned this the hard way.

In another era, he was and should have been the perfect white candidate to galvanize black voter support. He’s liberal, libertarian and doggedly committed to the naïve civil rights idealism of Kennedy and King. But this time he had the misfortune of being white. Because of that, and that alone, as one of his aides explained, “He had his head handed to him. We missed the boat on what was happening out there, just like everybody did. Now, I’m afraid it’s too late.”

Congressman Bill Gray, the slick no-wrinkle Baptist-preacher-turned-politician looks like a sort of black Bill Green, as he leans forward from behind his big desk in his headquarters office on the corner of Germantown and Slocum.

Gray is such a brilliant political strategist and so perfectly attuned to the alienation of his black constituents that he told the U.S government to take their fancy Congressional office in the Federal Building at 6th and Arch and shove it.

“My people aren’t downtown people,” he says, emphasizing “downtown,” like it’s a communicable disease:

“Very few of them work downtown and none of them live there. My black people are walk-in trade. They come here right off the street and expect one-stop service. An office in the Federal Building is useless to me. My white people can have the most complicated problem in the world but they’ll just write it up very neatly in a letter; spell out every single detail and we can handle the whole thing with correspondence or a phone call. But most of my district is black. That’s why I have this place and storefronts in West Philly and on Columbia Avenue.”

Bill Gray may be the most complete realist operating in Philadelphia politics today. Except for those dire moments when his own political survival is on the line, he’s smart enough to measure things in terms of right and wrong, not race.

In any other election but the recent primary, Bill Gray would have been in Bill Green’s corner from Round One. The two pols were made for each other. But even a Bible-quoting tower-of-power like Bill Gray was forced to dump his good friend Bill Green and endorse a man whose ideas he respects, but whose tactics he abhors, Charles Bowser.

Gray understands what happened last spring and regretfully accepts his role in it, but the U.S. Congress is where he belongs at the moment and his first duty is to get reelected.

“That man [Green] was absolutely shattered by the primary,” Reverend Gray explains, with the same conviction he uses on his congregation at the Bright Hope Baptist Church on Columbia Avenue.

“He never expected blacks to turn on him the way they did. Green had been there every time we needed him in Congress before it was fashionable to do so. His daddy’s constituents in Kensington called that man ‘a nigger lover’ because he never let us down. The NAACP rated him 100% on his voting record. I don’t know if you know this or not, but Bill Green even voted to defend Adam Clayton Powell when Congress tried to censure him. Now, he was there. You know what I mean?

“But these young guys on the street today—they don’t want to hear that. They never came up from the bondage in Egypt and they think they’re the only ones who ever had to fight for anything.

“There was no way in the world that a black man couldn’t have supported Bill Green for mayor just as easily as Charles Bowser—no way except that Green was white.

“He told me that the day after the primary, he and his wife drove down to Longport. She cried the whole way down. She just sat there and cried because she couldn’t accept the way the black people had rejected her husband. You know something? She shouldn’t have had to.”

Not too many of us are ready to admit just yet that we feel under siege every time we walk through the streets of downtown Philadelphia in the evening or City Hall Courtyard in broad daylight, but we’re getting close.

If you’re white and uptight and you happen to live in Philadelphia, this hasn’t been a very reassuring year.

The backlash of Rizzo’s charter change; the bitter after-shock of the MOVE killings; the Whitman Park war with HUD; the riots and snipings in Southwest Philly; Charlie Bowser’s racist rhetoric and grim emergence this summer of black separatist politics as its end result; the Justice Department’s frontal attack on the police force—all these things have put white people, especially white Philadelphians, on the defensive as never before.

The reality of what Philadelphia of the 1980s and beyond may be like has caused an uneasiness in many whites that is creeping into political and municipal decisions; infecting banking and commercial transactions; disrupting school systems and learning situations; short-circuiting charitable and philanthropic endeavors and jeopardizing the racial peace that is prerequisite for a city on the way up instead of on the way out.

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  • 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?”