North Philadelphia native remembers the 1964 riots

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    Reverend Joe Williams (Emma Lee/for NewsWorks)

    Reverend Joe Williams (Emma Lee/for NewsWorks)

    Reverend Joe Williams has lived in Mt. Airy for many years.  He’s traveled the world as a professional singer and was a member of the Dixie Hummingbirds. He is pastor of the Mt. Airy United Fellowship church. But if you ask him, he will tell you he is from “North Philadelphia, 18th and Norris.”

    Williams grew up in the heart of North Philadelphia at a different time, a time before Temple University had spread so far south and west, a time when there were local businesses, and a vibrant community.

    “You were always proud to say you were from North Philly,” says Williams.

    Williams came of age before the violent events in late summer, 1964. 

    On the night of August 28 a rumor spread that a pregnant woman had been killed by a white police officer.  While the rumor was not true, it came in the midst of a summer of tension between the black community and police departments from California to Pennsylvania. Incidents and allegations of brutality, unjust killing and military tactics by police had fueled riots across the country. The rumor was the spark for a powder keg of anger and frustration in the mostly black neighborhood.

    In 1964 Reverend Williams was a young man. He had come out of the Marine Corps and he got a job driving for lawyer and community leader Cecil B. Moore, who had also been in the Marines. When he was growing up people were proud to say they were from North Philadelphia.  Williams feels that the looting, the fires and the violence that occurred left permanent scars.

    “You didn’t know our neighborhood after they tore it up.  It was the kiss of death for our area.”

    Fifty years on North Philadelphia has seen a lot of change. Predictions of a renaissance, fueled by Temple’s expansion, come and go as old buildings get demolished and new buildings take their place. Williams acknowledges the progress but says that there is still a lot of North Philadelphia that “never came back” after the riots.

    “I don’t even ride down the street I was raised up in. I don’t think I could stand to see my house.”

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