Rivalry in the Trenches: Philadelphia’s PAL and the Black Panther Party’s Efforts to Mold Black Youth into Their Own Image

In this, our third entrant into the Fourth Annual UHA/The Metropole Graduate Student Blogging Contest, Menika Dirkson examines the stretches made by competing organizations—the Police Athletic League and the Black Panther Party—to effectively address the problem of juvenile crime and police-community violence in Philadelphia during the 1960s and ’70s.

Southwest Philadelphia’s Wilson Park Housing Project in the 1970s.

In 1976, Andre Martin was a fifteen-year-old student at Vare Junior High School with a difficult life.[1] His mother was a divorcee struggling with mental health issues, as she had lived with her five children in public housing for almost a decade.[2] As a resident of the Wilson Park Housing Project in Southwest Philadelphia, Martin witnessed drugs, gangs, violence, and crime.[3] From age eleven, Martin was in and out of Juvenile Court for malicious mischief, gun and marijuana possession, and shoplifting.[4] In 1975, Juvenile Court referred him to STEPS (Start Towards Eliminating Past Setbacks), a program that paired him with an adult who would teach him a trade.[5] Martin was later “dropped” from the program “for lack of interest” when he missed two sessions.[6]

Southwest Philadelphia’s Wilson Park Housing Project today.

In addition to Martin’s negative experiences with the police, his animosity toward law enforcement increased following a police-involved shooting. On September 26, 1975, Martin’s nineteen-year-old “drinking buddy,” Ellis Croft, was shot five times by the police in an alley after he robbed a Pantry Pride supermarket at 25th Street and Snyder Avenue, shot a store clerk, and attempted to flee the scene.[7] According to Croft, he stole $4,000 from the supermarket because his family was poor and he was tired of living in public housing with his siblings while his mother worked endlessly to pay bills.[8] After police shot Croft and took him to the hospital, he arrived at Holmesburg Prison in a wheelchair; thereafter the news media portrayed Croft as paralyzed from the injuries. Following the incident, Martin told his friends he wanted to “get a cop” in retaliation for how police officers (in Martin’s opinion) deliberately and excessively shot Croft.[9] On February 25, 1976, Martin made good on his promise to avenge Croft when he shot and killed Patrolman John Trettin at Wilson Park Housing Project.

The story of Andre Martin demonstrates how institutional racism and the failure of criminal reform for juveniles have contributed to the cycle of police-community violence.[10] During the late 1960s and early 1970s, as a means to address increasing juvenile crime in the city, both the Black Panther Party and the city’s Police Athletic League stretched to address the perceived crisis. The resulting efforts and subsequent rivalry demonstrated the very different approaches both groups took to combat the socioeconomic barriers African American youth faced, while also emphasizing the inability of the police department to reduce police brutality or improve the lives of  marginalized residents. During the 1960s Civil Rights Movement, America witnessed peaceful protests for racial equality and socioeconomic inclusivity through social and legal channels. However, police brutality against black demonstrators and criminal suspects sparked a nationwide outbreak of over 200 race riots.[11] Locally, the 1964 Columbia Avenue Riots in North Philadelphia began over the false rumor that a white policeman had beaten a pregnant black woman to death. During the two-day riot, 1,800 officers were called to stop the uprising after African American residents burned cars, destroyed and looted more than 200 white businesses, and fought with police.[12] 

Amidst this period of social unrest, many city officials often conflated civil rights protestors, rioters, and gang members into a single entity that was a constant nuisance for the police. Nationwide, there was increasing pressure on local politicians to support tough on crime policing to control gangs and eliminate crime rather than invest in social welfare programs.[13] Police soon became militarized, and schools, streets, mass transportation, and housing projects inhabited by African Americans became criminalized.[14] Additionally, President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society programs, War on Poverty and War on Crime, led politicians to debate how to reduce crime under the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968.[15] Conservatives argued police departments should receive the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration (LEAA) grant to spend on strengthening their crime-fighting methods. Conversely, liberals lobbied to finance social uplift programs that would gradually rectify urban poverty and effectively reduce crime.[16] However, influential politicians like Frank L. Rizzo refused to believe that curing the social ills of poverty, unemployment, school dropouts, and gang violence would result in massive crime reduction.

Between 1970 and 1978, even though African Americans comprised 33 percent of Philadelphia’s population, there were 469 police-involved shootings in which 66 percent of all suspects shot were black.[17] During the 1970s, seventeen officers died by gunfire, assault, and stabbing.[18] Such confrontations occurred due to police practices of stop and frisk, quotidian surveillance, illegal house raids, public strip searches, false criminal accusations and arrests, and verbal and physical assaults on protestors at peaceful demonstrations.[19] There was also a growing concern regarding gang violence. For example, in 1969 alone, 45 murders and 267 injuries were gang related, as well as numerous incidents of “burglary and purse snatching” that affected gang members and innocent bystanders, including children.[20] In July 1969, the Pennsylvania Crime Commission released their report on gang violence in Philadelphia stating there were 75 gangs and 3,000 gang members known by police, with each gang consisting of between 25 and 250 members ranging from 12 to 23 years old.[21]

As police commissioner, Rizzo believed “objectionable people” caused the crime, unemployment, and white flight that ruined the social, political, and economic reputation of the city.[22] In April 1967, Rizzo implemented “stop and frisk” and emergency curfews, and even purchased armored personnel transports that his critics likened to “military tanks.” Additionally, Rizzo did not support the Police Advisory Board (PAB), thought police brutality was rare, and required no departmental investigation of misconduct. If a riot happened, he wanted it to be “treated with a firm hand.”[23] During the 1970s, “objectionable people”—nonwhites, the poor, homosexuals, hippies, liberals, or political dissidents—who did not fit the police department’s image of a patriotic law-abiding citizen, experienced discriminatory policing tactics that included excessive force and civil rights violations.[24] Activists like Spencer Coxe, the Executive Director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s (ACLU) Philadelphia Branch, frequently received complaints that Police Captain Rizzo was ordering the illegal raids of coffee houses, public squares, and political offices to disperse “undesirable” people who would offend his “law and order” constituency.[25]

As mayor, Rizzo extended these “tough on crime policies” to maintain his occupancy of public office and meet the expectations of “law and order” citizens. Rizzo often encouraged police officers, through political rhetoric at press conferences and in interviews, to use excessive force against the “animals” who committed street crime. “The guy that kills police should be strung up…after he receives that fair trial,” he once argued, while another time he suggested that “The way to treat criminals is spacco il capa (“to bust their heads” in Italian)”.[26] Moreover, under Rizzo, police freely deployed excessive or deadly force on alleged criminals who appeared to threaten the safety and morality of the city.

In response to these crises, the Police Athletic League (PAL) and the Black Panther Party (BPP) competed with each other to influence young black males, since they were the demographic most affected by citizen-police confrontations.[27] These organizations were concerned about violence between the police and black community, but each group had their own theories about the root causes. PAL centers sought to influence children who by “nature” were prone to crime, while the Panthers fought to rectify the dysfunctional social situations of impoverished youths who resorted to crime because of how society “nurtured” them.

PAL centers, operated by the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP), portrayed a positive image of the police and encouraged children to avoid criminal activity. In 1947, Philadelphia Police Sergeant August Rangnow established PAL following World War II to deter underprivileged youth from street crime and drug use.[28] By the 1960s, there were nineteen PAL centers throughout the city offering free after-school programs for thousands of children. PAL’s main goal was to connect police officers with neighborhood children via mentorship, friendship, and sportsmanship in athletic games of boxing, baseball, basketball, table tennis, and marching band.[29]

As police commissioner, Rizzo visited prisons and participated in multiple PAL events like “Commissioner for a Day,” in which he gave teenagers assignments at police headquarters.[30] As mayor, Rizzo continued his involvement in crime prevention by signing autographs for children and assisting police at crime scenes while also promoting American patriotism at PAL centers. Officers, coaches, and mentors at PAL encouraged children to say the pledge of allegiance and sign oaths of allegiance that were sent to Mayor Rizzo and other state and national politicians.[31] In addition to using recreation to steer children from crime, PAL indoctrinated them into being loyal citizens.

Members of Black Panther Party distribute free lunches, August 17, 1971. Philadelphia Evening Bulletin, Temple University Libraries, Special Collections Research Center.

Conversely, the Panthers promoted awareness that institutional racism, poverty, and police brutality were the causes of the deterioration of working-class black communities. Since 1966, the BPP had focused on educating and socially uplifting black people.[32] The Panthers advocated for their rights and outlined their Marxist, black nationalist views in distributed pamphlets. The Panthers’ Ten-Point Program articulated their goals, which included demanding the government provide full employment, decent housing, and education for black people. The BPP’s Eight Points of Attention emphasized moral principles for its members to follow as role models in the black community, such as “do not hit or swear at people,” “do not take liberties with women,” and “do not damage property of the oppressed masses.”

The Panthers also provided missions programs to alleviate socioeconomic burdens.[33] Some of these programs were a community ambulance service, free medical and legal clinics, a police patrol, community centers, and the Free Breakfast for School Children Program.[34] Since the Panthers provided these beneficial resources, their political propaganda appealed to the African American community because it identified institutional racism and the failure of social welfare programs as causes for the struggles of the urban black poor.

Photograph of black children benefiting from PAL’s free lunch program published one day after the image of the Panthers is featured, August 18, 1971. Philadelphia Evening Bulletin, Temple University Libraries, Special Collections Research Center.

Since PAL and the Panthers had competing agendas, Rizzo, the FOP, and the Philadelphia Police Department (PPD) attempted to eliminate their rivalry by offering similar programs to the black community and delegitimizing the BPP in the media by depicting them as radicals, criminals, and political dissidents. Additionally, the recent memory of the Columbia Avenue Riots of 1964 made the FOP’s attempt to criminalize the Black Panthers a tangible narrative for the public. Activities like the Panthers’ Free Breakfast Program reflected a positive image of the BPP, so in order to compete, PAL centers began a free lunch program for youth. This rivalry was clearly visible in the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin, which on August 17, 1971 published a photograph of black men from the BPP distributing free lunches to black children on a North Philadelphia sidewalk.[35] The next day, the newspaper published three images of black female officers serving black children lunch at a PAL center as two white policemen looked on.[36] The BPP photograph bolstered a positive reputation of the Panthers since it portrayed black men as providing food to children when they were not carrying guns to protect the community from police brutality. In contrast, the PAL images portrayed white male officers attempting to replicate the close interaction BPP men had with children, but since the officers did not personally serve the youth they appeared as mere suppliers of a meal.

When emulating BPP programs proved unsuccessful, the police department sought to criminalize the Panthers and associate them with anti-police violence. On August 29, 1970, five members from the revolutionary group the Black Unity Council ambushed, shot, and wounded Park Policeman James Harrington and later killed Fairmount Park Police Sergeant Frank Von Colln at the Cobbs Creek Guardhouse in West Philadelphia.[37] The next day, Patrolman Thomas J. Gibbons Jr. and his partner, John J. Nolen, were shot after stopping two black men in a stolen car in Southwest Philadelphia. After two days of black male anti-police violence, Rizzo told news reporters “this is no longer a civilized neighborhood.”[38] Rizzo then conflated the Black Unity Council with the BPP by erroneously stating that the Panthers were responsible for Sergeant Von Colln’s murder.

Sergeant Frank Von Colln found murdered in a Cobbs Creek guardhouse on August 30, 1970. Philadelphia Evening Bulletin, Temple University Libraries, Special Collections Research Center.

On August 31, 1970, Rizzo and the police department conducted a 6 am police raid of the BPP offices in North and West Philadelphia. Although a homicide detective had already arrested the suspects involved in the shootings of Officer Harrington and Sergeant Von Colln, Rizzo and his aides acquired search warrants and deployed 100 police expert shooters to arrest several Panthers.[39] In the West Philadelphia raid, police seized guns and political pamphlets, destroyed furniture and household plumbing, took fourteen BPP members into custody, and publicly strip-searched seven Panthers on a residential street.[40]Daily News photographer Elwood P. Smith captured the image of several bare-chested, barefoot, or completely nude Panthers lined up against a wall being strip-searched. Later, United Press International distributed the photograph worldwide. In press conferences Rizzo responded to the incident unabashed: “We did nothing wrong…their feelings were hurt. The big Black Panthers with their trousers down…we had information…they did have guns in there…” Furthermore, this humiliating and criminalizing image of the Panthers not only discredited the BPP’s reputation, but also sent a message to black youth that black radicalism led to public persecution.[41]

Black Panther leader Huey P. Newton speaking with the press before the opening of the People’s Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia on September 5, 1970. Philadelphia Evening Bulletin, Temple University Libraries, Special Collections Research Center.

After the police raids of the BPP’s offices, the Greater Philadelphia Movement (GPM) and the Urban Coalition were concerned Rizzo would use the murder of Sergeant Von Colln as an excuse to prohibit the Panthers’ People’s Revolutionary Convention. These groups of bankers, business executives, and attorneys filed a suit in U.S. District Court requesting that Rizzo and the police department be enjoined from violating the rights of African Americans and political dissidents.[42] On September 4, 1970, after hours of hearings, U.S. District Court Judge John P. Fullam issued an order forbidding police from violating anyone’s rights. On that same day, the men arrested during the police raid of the BPP’s offices were freed due to lack of evidence. As supporters of the Panthers prepared to attend the People’s Constitutional Convention on September 5th, BPP leaders including Huey P. Newton spoke to the press regarding Rizzo’s accusations that the Panthers incited black citizens to murder police: “Bozo [Rizzo] definitely aided in mobilizing the community…when people are oppressed to a point where they say, ‘Off the pig,’ they won’t only say that, they will do that.”[43] Furthermore, while the Panthers refuted Rizzo’s incriminations, 5,000 people attended the People’s Constitutional Convention without facing “harassment” or enduring excessive police force.[44]

Students in attendance at the Black Panther Party’s People’s Constitutional Convention held at Temple University on September 6, 1970. Philadelphia Evening Bulletin, Temple University Libraries, Special Collections Research Center.

By the late 1970s, police-community violence remained an issue in Philadelphia. Although Rizzo, the FOP, and the Panthers fought to maintain their political platform and shape black youth, they could not solve the issue of police-citizen violence. While organizations like Safe Streets, Inc. and PLOT (Philadelphia’s Leaders of Tomorrow) united city officials, community leaders, and gang members to interact through recreation and public forums, these groups were short-lived and lacked participation from prominent city leaders, namely Mayor Rizzo. Today, there are twenty PAL facilities operating in Philadelphia as havens for children in “troubled” neighborhoods. Despite the BPP’s influence on the black community, the national organization ceased operations in 1982. Since the cycle of violence between police and the black community persists, did Rizzo, the FOP, and the Panthers suffer defeat in their efforts to shape black youth? They were aware that racism and capitalism caused the violence between black men and white police officers, but they never determined how to successfully eliminate the problem entirely. Unfortunately, these entities never openly and honestly discussed their opposing viewpoints with each other, yet took divisive approaches to solving a community issue that affected all citizens. Had they communicated, might the city be in a different place today?      

Menika Dirkson is a Philadelphia native and PhD Candidate in History at Temple University who specializes in Race and Policing in post-1968 Urban America.

Featured image (at top): Teenagers from PAL take part in “Commissioner for A Day” on February 18, 1969. Philadelphia Evening Bulletin, Temple University Libraries, Special Collections Research Center.

[1] Gunter David, “Murder Trial Pits Youth Against Pal,” Philadelphia Evening Bulletin, Sept. 8,1976, from Temple University Special Collections Research Center, Philadelphia Evening Bulletin clippings, call no. SCRC 169, vol. Andre Martin, collection URB (hereafter TU-SCRC, Philadelphia Evening Bulletin-Andre Martin). 

[2] Gunter David, “To Live in Fear Everyday of Your Life,” Philadelphia Evening Bulletin, Sept. 15, 1976, TU-SCRC, Philadelphia Evening Bulletin-Andre Martin.

[3] Gunter David, “To Live in Fear Everyday of Your Life,” Philadelphia Evening Bulletin, Sept. 15, 1976, TU-SCRC, Philadelphia Evening Bulletin-Andre Martin.

[4] “In Our Opinion: Willing to Kill,” Philadelphia Daily News, Sept 24, 1976, Newspapers.com.

[5] “In Our Opinion: Willing to Kill.”

[6] Gunter David, “Jurors Can’t Agree: Cop Killer Gets Life,” Philadelphia Evening Bulletin, Sept. 22, 1976, TU-SCRC, Philadelphia Evening Bulletin-Andre Martin.

[7] “Mindless Tragedy Ruins Six Lives,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, Mar. 7, 1976, Newspapers.com.

[8] “Policeman’s Death: Was Vengeance the Motive?” The Philadelphia Inquirer, Mar. 7, 1976, Newspapers.com. 

[9] “Policeman’s Death: Was Vengeance the Motive?”

[10] Structural violence is a generational trend of social inequality that affects certain groups of people based on their race, class, or the intersectionality of both.

[11] Thomas Ferrick Jr., Doreen Carvajal, and Thomas J. Gibbons Jr., “The 25-year-old Scars of a Riot Violence of 1964 Devastated a Vital Neighborhood,” Philadelphia Inquirer, Aug. 27, 1989, Philly.com.

[12] Matthew J. Countryman, Up South (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006), 154-164.

[13] Max Felker-Kantor, Policing Los Angeles: Race, Resistance, and the Rise of the LAPD (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2018).

[14] Heather Ann Thompson, “Why Mass Incarceration Matters,” Journal of American History 97, no. 3 (Dec. 2010): 703-734.

[15] William J. Speer, “The Safe Streets Project—Inroads on Phila. Gang Control?,” Philadelphia Inquirer, Feb. 22 1970, Temple University Special Collections Research Center, Philadelphia Evening Bulletin clippings, box 3354, Safe Streets, Inc. collection.

[16] Elizabeth Hinton, From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime: The Making of Mass Incarceration in America, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2016).

[17] Anthony E. Jackson, Esq., “Statement of Anthony E. Jackson, Esq., Director, Police Project, PILCOP, April 19, 1979,” April 19, 1979, http://www.pubintlaw.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/04/Deadly_Force_1.pdf. See the Appendix for statistics on the white and black populations in Philadelphia from 1900 to 1980.

[18] “Fallen Officers-Philadelphia Police Department, 1828-2015,” Officer Down Memorial Page, accessed, May 8, 2015, www.odmp.org.

[19] Frank Donner, “Rizzo’s Philadelphia: Police City” in Protectors of Privilege: Red Squads and Police Repression in Urban America (Oakland: University of California Press, 1992).

[20] M. Phineas Anderson, The Gang Unit ([Philadelphia]: Pennsylvania Advancement School, 1970), 2.

[21] Anderson, The Gang Unit, 17-18.

[22] Frank Rizzo was police commissioner of Philadelphia from 1968 to 1972 and mayor from 1972 to 1980.

[23] Timothy Lombardo, Blue-Collar Conservatism: Frank Rizzo’s Philadelphia and Populist Politics (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2018).

[24] Amateur Night at City Hall: The Story of Frank L. Rizzo, Dir. Robert Mugge, MVD Entertainment Group, 1978, Kanopy, Web.

[25] Amateur Night at City Hall.

[26] Jerome H. Skolnick and James J. Fyfe, Above the Law: Police and Excessive Use of Force (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1993).

[27] Tyree Johnson, “Men Needed to Share Skills with Boys,” Philadelphia Daily News, May 15, 1974. Safe Streets, Inc. was an anti-gang program established by Philadelphia District Attorney Arlen Specter in August 1968 to reduce gang violence, end turf wars between rival gangs, and provide social services like job training and academic tutoring to juveniles.

[28] Matthew Ward, “Police Athletic League,” The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia (2017), http://philadelphiaencyclopedia.org/archive/police-athletic-league/.

[29] PAL centers also offered children arts and crafts, homework clubs, and literacy programs.

[30] “Sniper shoots down police, setting off a massive manhunt,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, Feb. 26, 1976, Newspapers.com.

[31] “Police Athletic League.”

[32] The Black Panther Party (New York: Merit Publishers, 1966).

[33] Erin Blakemore, “How the Black Panthers’ Breakfast Program Both Inspired and Threatened the Government,” (February 6, 2018), History.com, https://www.history.com/news/free-school-breakfast-black-panther-party.

[34] The BPP’s police patrol involved Panthers openly carrying guns and following police cars to prevent police brutality. The BPP’s Free Breakfast for School Children Program began in January 1969 in Oakland, California. BPP members and volunteers consulted nutritionists on breakfast options and went to local grocery stores requesting donations to buy healthy food (specifically eggs, chocolate milk, meat, cereal, and fresh oranges) to feed tens of thousands of kids nationwide. The BPP’s breakfast program later influenced the federal government to authorize free breakfast in public schools by 1975.

[35] Richard Rosenberg, “Members of Black Panther Party distribute free lunches,” August 17, 1971, George D. McDowell Philadelphia Evening Bulletin Photographs, Temple Digital Collections, Temple University Libraries, Special Collections Research Center, http://digital.library.temple.edu/cdm/singleitem/collection/p15037coll3/id/53359/rec/19.

[36] Michael J. J. Maicher, “Children eating lunch at a table,” August 18, 1971, George D. McDowell Philadelphia Evening Bulletin Photographs, Temple Digital Collections, Temple University Libraries, Special Collections Research Center http://digital.library.temple.edu/cdm/singleitem/collection/p15037coll3/id/8204/rec/29.

[37] Joseph R. Daughen and Peter Binzen, The Cop Who Would Be King: The Honorable Frank Rizzo (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1977).

[38] Daughen and Binzen, The Cop Who Would Be King, 150.

[39] Daughen and Binzen, The Cop Who Would Be King, 147-155.

[40] Daughen and Binzen, The Cop Who Would Be King, 147-155.

[41] Daughen and Binzen, The Cop Who Would Be King, 150-155.

[42] Daughen and Binzen, The Cop Who Would Be King, 150-155.

[43] Daughen and Binzen, The Cop Who Would Be King, 155.

[44] Fred Hamilton, Rizzo: From Cop to Mayor of Philadelphia (New York: Viking Press, 1973).

One thought on “Rivalry in the Trenches: Philadelphia’s PAL and the Black Panther Party’s Efforts to Mold Black Youth into Their Own Image

  1. Thank you for this informative piece! So much history and Philly connections imparted through your research.


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