Melvin Floyd, a former Philadelphia police officer and Baptist pastor best known for preaching against gang violence in a van with a casket on the roof, died last week at his home in Germantown. He was 85 and tested negative for COVID-19.
Rev. Floyd, also known as the “dean of evangelism,” spent more than 40 years driving around Philadelphia in his van. The casket had a mannequin, dressed up as a corpse, sitting on top of it. The van also had a sound system, a movie projector, and a screen.
During the summer, Floyd dressed in all white and would hop from neighborhood to neighborhood, blasting gospel music out of the van, and attracting people to corner meetings where he would tell gory stories while showing homemade movies and slideshows depicting corpses and bloody scenes.
“And when he came on with his van with the coffin on top, which most people know him by, it was like in your face message: if you keep on doing what you’re doing with gangs or drugs you’re going to end up in this coffin, or in jail,” said Archbishop Mary Floyd Palmer, the eldest of Floyd’s three daughters.
As a young man, Floyd, a North Philadelphia native, was in a gang himself. He dropped out of Benjamin Franklin High School in the 11th grade, joined the Army at the age of 18, and served during the Korean War. Four years later, he joined the Philadelphia Police Department, where he got several national and local awards, such as Philadelphia’s Outstanding Policeman in 1968 and Outstanding Young Man of the Year in 1969 for his work as a gang control officer.
In 1972, less than seven years short from vesting a pension, he turned in his police badge to devote himself full-time to his ministry Neighborhood Crusades in Germantown, which he directed for over 45 years. It was his wife, Betty, who pushed him to make the move.
“I am calling myself a missionary to Philadelphia and plan to take my ministry to the street,” he said at the time.
Over the next several years, he gave weekly marriage and family seminars. He believed the root of the gang problem was the breakdown of the American Black family. He also founded the Mel Floyd School of Evangelism, finished school and earned several degrees, directed five commercials on drugs, gang warfare, and teenage alcoholism; and produced films such as “On Patrol for God” and “The Gang’s All Here,” featuring some local gang members and residents.
“He really loved people and the preservation of their lives,” Archbishop Floyd Palmer said. “And he tangibly did that, in a unique kind of out-of-the box way.”
His unique style mixed the spiritual and the practical, evangelism and engagement, and the Bible and grisly movies.
“I began realizing [as a police officer] that putting people in jail wasn’t working,” the reverend told the Philadelphia Inquirer in 1997. “They needed more: a conversion. A change of heart.”
But it was the van with the coffin — he had four over the course of his life — that became his signature. Palmer said he would sometimes hire a young person to lie in the coffin and stand up on a corner to say “death can catch you on this corner.” He’d also ask people gathered around the van with the casket, “Do you want to be in one of those?”
“He just talked simply, but stately. And for a lot of people, that was the turning point,” Floyd Palmer said. “It was the first Scared Straight program before it was called Scared Straight.”
Bilal Qayyum, founder and president of the Father’s Day Rally Committee, met Floyd in the 1970s through their work at the House of Umoja, the home of “Queen Mother” Falaka Fattah and her husband David Fattah who would take in gang members to live with them.
Qayyum said the engagement tactics used by Floyd and the team — interacting with gang members, giving them other ways to resolve conflict and access to education and jobs — reduced gang murders in the city.
“He gained a lot of respect with a lot of the young men on the corner because they knew he was real. They knew he was committed to trying to save their lives,” Qayyum said.
While, the homicide rate is going up in Philadelphia today — 18% higher than last year — according to the most recent police data — the situation is quite different now, Qayyum said.
“We knew who the gangs were, we knew who the members were. Today, and for the last 30 years, most of the shootings in this city are argument related. You can’t predict that,” Qayyum said. “Because of the number of guns on the streets, it’s very hard to use the tactics that we used in the ’70s and ‘80s to address the violence problem now.”
For Anton Moore, an anti-violence activist and director of Unity in the Community, Rev. Floyd was a legend.
“When I was growing up you always saw the person on top of the van and him speaking through the microphone about drugs and about gang violence, and it was eye-catching,” Moore said. “We thought it was so crazy, but it made sense because it caught people’s attention.”
Floyd is survived by his brother; his three daughters Mary Floyd Palmer, Ruth Naomi Floyd — who is the director of jazz studies at Cairn University and an artist-in-residence at Temple University — and Esther M. Sawyer, an administrator at Neighborhood Crusades. Floyd is also survived by his nine grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren. Due to the pandemic, a virtual, private viewing and memorial will be held Monday.