Memo From Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy to President John F. Kennedy, Informing Him of FBI Chief J. Edgar Hoover’s Efforts to Link Communists to the First Major Northern City Race Riot of the 1960s

Our research discloses no other memo from RFK to JFK ever having reached the market, let alone one detailing the inner workings of Hoover’s FBI, and how he communicated with the Attorney General and President .

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Signed by Robert Kennedy, initialed by Hoover, seen by President Kennedy, and retained in the papers of JFK aide Kenneth O’Donnell

On October 26, 1963, 24 year old Willie Philyaw was stopped by Philadelphia police for allegedly stealing a watch from a local drugstore. Police claimed Philyaw attacked an officer with a...

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Memo From Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy to President John F. Kennedy, Informing Him of FBI Chief J. Edgar Hoover’s Efforts to Link Communists to the First Major Northern City Race Riot of the 1960s

Our research discloses no other memo from RFK to JFK ever having reached the market, let alone one detailing the inner workings of Hoover’s FBI, and how he communicated with the Attorney General and President .

Signed by Robert Kennedy, initialed by Hoover, seen by President Kennedy, and retained in the papers of JFK aide Kenneth O’Donnell

On October 26, 1963, 24 year old Willie Philyaw was stopped by Philadelphia police for allegedly stealing a watch from a local drugstore. Police claimed Philyaw attacked an officer with a knife, but witnesses said he was hobbling away from police on an injured leg. The officer shot and killed him, and a crowd gathered. For North Philadelphia’s black community, the incident confirmed their perception that the police used unnecessary force against them. This incident sparked a riot in North Philadelphia that commenced on the 28th, in which about 500 people broke windows, looted the stores of white merchants along Susquehanna Avenue, and fought against almost 100 riot-equipped police. 23 people were arrested on charges of malicious mischief, disorderly conduct and breach of the peace. Local ministers tried unsuccessfully to persuade the crowds to leave the streets, as activists maintained that this police brutality showed the ineffectiveness of mainstream civil rights groups such as the NAACP. The District Attorney’s office claimed that the killing was justified, clearing the police of all charges. Some sources consider this the first large city racial riot of the 1960s.

The longtime head of the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover, was no fan of the civil rights movement to begin with. After trying for a while to come up with evidence that would brand Martin Luther King as a communist or at least influenced by communists, he discovered that King had extramarital affairs, and switched to this topic for further attacks on King. Jacqueline Kennedy recalled that Hoover told President John. F. Kennedy that King tried to arrange a sex party while in the capital for the 1963 March on Washington, and told Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy that King made derogatory comments during the President’s funeral. But claims that radicals and demonstrators were communists were still Hoover’s bread and butter. Finding communists responsible when there were civic disturbances would justify crackdowns, which he favored, and tend to discredit the more political response of calming the waters favored by the Justice Department and many local authorities.

In the immediate aftermath of the Philyaw riot, the NAACP threatened to ask blacks to boycott the mayoral election being held the following week unless action was taken against the police officer that killed Philyaw. Some Philadelphia civic leaders, including those in the black community who were anxious to disassociate themselves from the riot, speculated that black radicals had infiltrated the neighborhood and stirred up trouble. The FBI investigated the riot and determined that the blame fell on the North Philadelphia Committee for Equal Justice (NPCEJ), an organization in which a small and largely ineffective communist splinter group took some part. The NPCEJ held a meeting demanding justice for Philyaw on the night of the riot, and Philadelphia police claimed that it had operated a sound truck calling for “an eye for an eye”. Some of those attending the meeting admittedly part in the riot. Hoover quickly sought to show that the cause of the riot was communist agitators, pure and simple.

Hoover proceeded to accuse Henry Ross of the NPCEJ of instigating the riot, and wrote an inter-office memo to the Attorney General, Robert F. Kennedy. Memorandum signed with initials, on his “United States Government Memorandum” letterhead, Washington, October 30, 1963, to Kennedy, detailing with the charges. “On October 26, 1963, Willie Philyaw, Jr., when being questioned by a Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, police officer as a suspect in the shoplifting of a North Philadelphia store, allegedly drew a knife. Philyaw was shot and killed by the police officer. As a result of this shooting, a mob formed which was subsequently dispersed by the police. On October 28, 1963, Henry Moss, who described himself as the Vice President of the North Philadelphia Committee for Equal Justice (NPCEJ), utilizing a sound truck, spoke to a crowd regarding the shooting of Philyaw. According to Philadelphia police, Moss described the police account of the shooting as a “barefaced lie” and commented “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.” Following the speech, the crowd broke windows, looted stores and pelted cars driven by white people. Fifteen individuals were arrested by the police. The NPCEJ was originated and is controlled by the Provisional Organizing Committee for a Marxist-Leninist Communist Party (POC). The POC was formed in August, 1958, by Communist Party members who were dissatisfied with policies of the Party. The POC is made up of hard-core, dedicated and extremist communists striving for international communism. Members of the POC are not connected with the Communist Party, USA. You will be kept advised of additional information which is received concerning this matter.” The memo is date stamped “Office of the Attorney General, Oct. 30, 1963”.

Robert  Kennedy saw this memo and thought the President should be informed. He sent it on to presidential aide Kenneth O’Donnell with the notation “Send copy to President. Bobby”. After the President saw it, O’Donnell retained it in his own papers. We recently obtained this directly from the O’Donnell family, and it has never before been offered for sale.

One wonders what the Kennedys thought of Hoover’s blaming the communists under these circumstances, rather than considering that grievances in the Black community may have played an important role. In any case, this is the first internal FBI-Justice Department-White House document we have had, or can recall seeing. It sheds light on Hoover’s methods of operating, and how Attorney General Kennedy interacted on public business with both him and President Kennedy.

Philyaw’s death portended the ways in which issues of police brutality and economic underdevelopment in northern cities would disrupt the vision of racial progress and harmony that had been successfully propagated by the mainstream civil rights movement during the early years of the 1960s. Less than a month later, President Kennedy was dead along with much of the nation’s self-confidence and liberal faith in the inevitability of social progress.

Racial rioting really crashed onto the national scene with the Harlem riot in July 1964. Rioting came to fruition in Philadelphia between August 24-30, 1964, when looting and rioting flared up in what came to be called the Columbia Avenue Riots, leaving 2 dead, 339 wounded, and 308 under arrest. There were riots in Chicago and Newark, New Jersey that summer, and the massive Watts riot in Los Angeles followed in 1965. The result was the radicalization of many in the black community and the arising of a counter-force in the white community, one that George Wallace and Richard Nixon would successfully exploit in years to come.

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