How A Grays Ferry Street Fight Became A Racial Crisis

by longformphilly

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Mark Bowden | Philadelphia Inquirer | April 1997

Raheem Williams remembers a sole white man in a black leather jacket and blue jeans, standing on the corner as he approached. The man was drunk.

It was after midnight on a cold Sunday morning, Feb. 23. Williams, a big 17-year-old, and his 17-year-old cousin, Warren Williams, were walking home down 30th Street from the 24-hour Pathmark on Grays Ferry Avenue. Raheem, who is black, was carrying a grocery bag.

“Got anything in that bag for me?” Raheem said the man on the corner asked.

The man was standing in light that spilled from the front door of St. Gabriel’s Social Hall. A party was winding down inside.

“You’re drunk,” Raheem said. “Why don’t you go home and sleep it off.”

Raheem had to walk past the man to reach his house. They bumped into each other. Words were exchanged. Shoves. Then blows.

This fight, which soon involved dozens of whites from inside the hall and Raheem’s cousin and mother, Annette Williams, would develop into the most serious racial crisis in recent Philadelphia history. Over the next six weeks, Grays Ferry’s long-simmering racial distrust would threaten to boil over into riot, with Minister Louis Farrakhan’s Nation of Islam calling for a 5,000-man march through its tense streets and local white residents dismayed to see themselves tarred nationally as violent racists.

Writer bio: Mark Bowden wrote for the Philadelphia Inquirer for more than 20 years from the late 1970s to the early 2000s. His “Black Hawk Down” series about a rescue mission in Somalia in the 1990s earned him national recognition and a book deal. The book was optioned into a movie, which was directed by Ridley Scott.

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