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  • Burning Columbia Avenue: Black Christianity, Black Nationalism, and ‘Riot Liturgy’ in the 1964 Philadelphia Race Riot
  • Courtney Ann Lyons (bio)


This investigation explores the religio-theological boundaries between Black Muslims and Black Christians manifested in the 1964 Philadelphia race riot, revealing complicated divisions within Philadelphia’s black community during the civil rights movement. Addressing the scholarly silence on the riot, the article not only pieces together the first extended narrative of the riot but also identifies the complicated negotiations of religion and theology manifested in the riot, namely, “riot liturgy” and ministerial response to the riot, arguing that religion assumed a fundamental role in the expression of and response to the riot.

Following a description of urban unrest in Philadelphia from the Great Migration through serial race riots in Northern urban cities in Summer 1964, this article reconstructs accounts of the riot from the two major white and black Philadelphia newspapers—The Philadelphia Inquirer Public Ledger and The Philadelphia Tribune-Herald—and oral history interviews with residents and clergy of North Philadelphia.1 [End Page 324]

Philadelphia boasted a rich heritage of racial equality including early abolition of slavery in 1779 and Richard Allen founding Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in 1792. However, this may be a “rich heritage” of Philadelphian façade.

Northern cities quickly overpopulated with the Great Migration. Employed blacks typically worked as unskilled or domestic laborers. Some factories hired blacks, usually for the dirtiest, most dangerous jobs, but Philadelphia’s large textile industry practiced segregated hiring. Government offices opened employment to blacks, primarily in agencies with a large black clientele. Fewer than four percent of blacks worked in white-collar jobs by the 1950s.2 By the 1960s, the allegedly liberated Philadelphia boasted a primarily white police force, residential segregation (housing in black neighborhoods was typically old and neglected with exorbitant rent), separate and unequal education, economic inopportunity, and disproportional allocation of city resources.3

The Great Migration also introduced black religious diversity. While there is no such thing as “the” black church, most blacks in the South belonged to Baptist, Methodist, or Holiness-Pentecostal churches. Catholicism claimed limited black membership in the South, as did traditional African religions such as conjure and voodoo, though certain ritual elements of conjure and voodoo remained within black Christianity. When Southern blacks migrated North, they experienced a host of religious options including Judaism, Islam, Catholicism, black charismatic religion, and religions of black identity such as the Moorish Science Temple, later the Nation of Islam (NOI). Albert Raboteau suggested that some blacks changed their religious affiliation to join with worldwide religions devoid of racial categorization.4 Black Catholics increased dramatically in the North, especially in large cities, as parishes and affiliated parochial schools reflected the new population.5

Whether remaining in their former Protestant denomination or converting, black churches functioned as the centers of black communities. Black churches helped migrants adjust to urban life. Lincoln and Mamiya suggested that Northern urban black churches lost the communal ties and moral authority held in the South. Even so, black churches provided stability, order, and fellowship to Northern blacks.6

Black ministers were often the most educated leaders within black communities. Black ministers contributed momentum to the development of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the Urban League. They interpreted current events in terms of religion [End Page 325] for their parishioners. Interdenominational cooperation, such as the National Fraternal Council of Negro Churches, formed via networks created by black ministers and their congregations. Black ministers and churches boycotted segregated businesses, and many black ministers preached and published concerning racial issues for much of the twentieth century.7

Black churches gained strength and numbers in the twentieth century. According to Karl Ellis Johnson, black churches in the postwar period “demonstrated the ability of the black working class and working poor to pool their resources for self-help and community improvement.”8 The AME church outnumbered other black denominations in Philadelphia at the end of the nineteenth century, and black Baptist churches gained dominance by the mid-twentieth century. Major black denominations included mostly female membership and exclusively male leadership. Emphasizing the key roles of women in the development...


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pp. 324-348
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