3/8/13 - "i'm going to make attila the hun look like a faggot"

In today's selection -- it was 1976, the nation's bicentennial, and yet astonishingly, the U.S. couldn't or wouldn't spend the money for a national bicentennial event, and so the event had devolved into a series of local celebrations. (Ironically, the Panic of 1873 had hampered America's centennial celebration in 1876 as well.) But the issue was deeper than money, since an unprecedented series of events had left many Americans questioning the very cause for celebration. The Vietnam War, Watergate, the Arab oil crisis, social equality for blacks and women, and more had left many Americans unsafe and hesitant in their willingness to commit wholeheartedly to the moment. It was in this milieu that the hard-ass, crime-busting politician gained its greatest favor in America -- and few fit this description better than Philadelphia's Mayor Frank Rizzo:

"Nowhere did the politics of the Bicentennial play out more clearly than in Philadelphia, where the Founders had gathered long before to declare independence. The proposed world's fair never took place, but Philadelphia's historical significance guaranteed that it would remain a national focal point for Bicentennial celebrations. Two hundred years after the signing of the Declaration, the city was a reflection of much of the rest of America, especially the urban Northeast: it had experienced the rapid decline of its industrial base and the move of many of its residents to suburbs and the emerging Sun Belt; rising crime and a declining tax base had left the city in financial straits.

"Mayor Frank Rizzo, the man in charge of the city, was himself a new phenomenon in Philadelphia politics -- and a sign of a shifting political terrain at the national level as well. As police commissioner in the 1960s, he had carefully cultivated a reputation for unstinting commitment to law and order. Once, called away from a formal dinner to respond to an episode of urban unrest, he displayed a nightstick in his cummerbund, in clear view of the news photographers he sought to impress. His toleration of racially motivated police brutality and lines like 'I'm going to make Attila the Hun look like a faggot' made enemies in Philadelphia's inner-city neighborhoods (and also, obviously, among its gay residents). In the summer of 1976, Rizzo faced a recall drive prompted by accusations of corruption. But Rizzo could count on fierce support from working-class ethnic whites who felt embattled by the city's urban crisis; they had formed a core constituency of his successful bid for mayor in 1971. As elsewhere across the country, white ethnics in Philadelphia abandoned the New Deal political coalitions that had attached them to the Democratic Party for decades. Although Rizzo served as a Democrat, he also ran against the party that many held responsible for rising crime rates and declining conditions in the city.

"In other neighborhoods, many echoed the complaints of one political commentator, who believed that Philadelphia was unfit to host the Bicentennial's leading events because of Rizzo, 'a racist whose very existence should be a national embarrassment.' Rizzo, however, hoped to turn the Bicentennial to his own uses. In 1972, he announced that his 'connections' in Washington -- his tough-on-crime conservatism was popular with Richard Nixon -- would gain him access to nearly one hundred million dollars in funds to rebuild the city center in preparation for the Bicentennial celebrations. The claim was not entirely outrageous: the federal government spent thirty million dollars just to clean up Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell. The full amount never materialized, but that was the least of Rizzo's exaggerations.

"Rizzo made law and order an issue during the Bicentennial. In an interview with the Philadelphia Inquirer, he insisted that a plot was underway to undermine the city's Bicentennial celebrations. 'The leftists ... intend to come in here in thousands from all over the country to disrupt ... how about the rights of the majority who are going to be here to enjoy themselves with their families?' He warned that Philadelphia had become 'a target for attempts at disruption and violence by a substantial coalition of leftist radicals' and called on the federal government to provide fifteen thousand troops to protect the city. Washington summarily rejected Rizzo's requests for troops, but on the evening of July 3, Rizzo issued another ominous warning: 'I hope and pray that nothing occurs, but I know this -- a lot of people are coming to this town who are bent on violence.' ...

"But had Rizzo received the troops he requested, they would have almost outnumbered the protestors. ... The violence Rizzo foresaw never materialized: by day's end, not a single protestor had been arrested.

"Downtown, official festivities went ahead as planned. President Ford put in an appearance at the Liberty Bell in the afternoon, along with Mayor Rizzo, conservative actor Charlton Heston, and Queen Elizabeth II of England, who caused something of a stir when she touched the Liberty Bell. ...

"[But] Rizzo had succeeded in scaring thousands of people away from the city. Philadelphia had expected seventy thousand to line the route of a festive parade, but only about half that number showed up. Those frightened off included high school marching bands and even entire state parade contingents. Joseph Sakalosky, the principal of Cedar Crest High School in New Lebanon, Pennsylvania, regretted that the school's marching band would not be attending the city's festivities. 'After 200 years of liberty, it is disconcerting that the nation cannot celebrate its Bicentennial without a threat of violence sufficiently strong to cause concern for the safety and welfare of our participating youth.' Some fifteen thousand marchers stayed home, including the entire delegations of Colorado, Kentucky, and Tennessee.

"In the end, most of the viewers of Philadelphia's celebrations watched from the comfort of their living rooms."


Christopher Capozzola, edited by Beth Bailey & David Farber


America in the 70s, "It Makes You Want to Believe in the Country"


University Press of Kansas


Copyright 2004 by University of Kansas Press


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