Frank Rizzo and White Christian Nationalism in Philadelphia
Donovan: I’m in the heart of the Italian market in South Philadelphia. If you’ve seen the movie Rocky, you’ve seen the Italian market. During that famous training montage, Rocky jogs through a bustling commercial street with colorful awnings and flaming metal barrels. That’s this. A lot has changed since that movie came out in 1976. Most obviously, the neighborhood isn’t very Italian anymore. There’s a huge Latino presence in the neighborhood. About a block from this spot is Alma del Mar, made famous when the Netflix show Queer Eye spent a season in Philly working with a Mexican-American restaurant entrepreneur. He calls the neighborhood “Puebladelphia.” Walk a few blocks south, and you’re on Washington Avenue, sometimes called Little Saigon, which is an epicenter for Philly’s Vietnamese-American community. Plus, there’s a collection of hipster coffee shops, galleries and cafes. But right now, I’m in a vacant lot beside a wall that’s been painted white. This is where the Frank Rizzo mural used to be.
News announcer: After nearly 25 years, the Frank Rizzo mural in Philadelphia’s Italian market was covered up.
Interviewee: It’s the “why.” Why was this mural painted over? Why were the statues taken down? It’s learning and educating ourselves to move forward and I think that this is a step.
Donovan: Rizzo was the mayor of Philadelphia in the 1970s, and South Philly was his political stronghold. He was born to Italian immigrants in a rowhome not far from where I’m standing. The neighborhood was very Italian, very Catholic. Next time you watch Rocky, look for the opening shot. It’s a mural of the Virgin Mary watching over a boxing match. That was the culture. Like most of Center City Philadelphia today, though, this neighborhood now is a multicultural arcade. There are still three Catholic churches and a shrine to a medieval Italian saint within a mile of where I’m standing. But the congregations have dwindled and the Rizzo mural is gone. So what happened?
Digitized voices: Rizzo’s dog would make a better mayor than the current city in the mayor’s office. He was the best. Wish he was still around. This country needs more Frank Rizzos.
Donovan: Welcome to “Vintage Philadelphia,” a huge Facebook group dedicated to Philly history. It’s a sprawling, slow-motion collision of different races, religions, and generations. Pretty pictures of skylines, street scenes, and landmarks bring out a spirit of unity in the group. Everyone likes the Liberty Bell or the view from the Delaware River or the lights on Addison. Weirdly for a Philly fan page, though, there are a lot of people here to hate on Philly. Most of these folks are older and white, and they seem to be located in Florida or the Jersey suburbs. They talk about how the city was once great but has gone downhill. They call it “Killadelphia” and blame the city’s slide on “the Democrats.” They seem to think that big chunks of the city were burned down during the Black Lives Matter protests of the past few years.
Digitized Voices: You had to know him to love him. Boy, we could use him now. The best mayor and police commissioner this city ever had. If he was alive now, he would get the city back to being crime-free.
Donovan: At the center of this weird social media maelstrom are posts about Rizzo. It seems to be an ironclad law that all the Rizzo boosters are white. Some of them say we need another Rizzo to clean up Philly or to run for president. Not infrequently, you hear Rizzo likened to Donald Trump. The moderator of the group, a hardcore Rizzo fan and Trump supporter, actually went through and started purging Rizzo critics in the comments a few years back. The few dissenting voices who remain are mostly Black, though some of the white faces speaking out against Rizzo identify themselves as members of the city’s queer communities.
Anthea Butler: Oh, Frank Rizzo was probably one of the worst mayors, police chiefs, everything of Philadelphia. I mean, I think Frank Rizzo, actually, depending on whose community you say, is either the biggest figure in Philadelphia history or he’s the biggest boogeyman in Philadelphia history.
Donovan: That’s Professor Anthea Butler, Philly resident and expert on race and religion. I wanted to talk to Professor Butler about Rizzo because not only are the Facebook fans predominantly white, they’re also very Catholic. The Facebook page is covered with pictures of cathedrals, churches, local Catholic schools. You’ve got pictures of Pope John Paul II’s visit in 1979, with many of the commenters talking about where they were standing when they saw him. That’s not to say there’s a lot of discussion of Catholic theology, but there’s a vivid sense of attachment to Catholic people, places, and objects.
And Rizzo himself was so admired by his loyalists that they spoke of him in explicitly religious language. They called him “the city’s salvation.” Rizzo is the knot at the heart of Philly’s complicated histories of race, religion and ethnicity. And it’s not just a story about Philly. The furious reaction to the removal of the Rizzo mural and statue is emblematic of a broader story at this moment in American history. It’s the story of white Christian nationalism.
News announcer: Frank Rizzo became Philadelphia police commissioner 16 months ago. He inherited a city in which racial hate had produced one major riot and dozens of disturbances.
Donovan: Long before Facebook diatribes and long before Rizzo, Philly’s history with race was complicated. Philly was a hub for early abolitionist activism and the Underground Railroad. William Penn, who founded the city in 1681, is sometimes praised for creating a peaceful and productive relationship with the Lenni Lenape people who were here when the colonists arrived. But Penn himself was also an enslaver, and his sons were responsible for the notorious walking purchase swindle in which the Lenni Lenape were cheated out of a huge swathe of their land. In the late 1830s, a white mob burned down Pennsylvania Hall, protesting the meeting of a mixed-race abolitionist convention. City authorities did nothing. On Election Day in 1871, Octavius Catto, a Black voting rights activist, was murdered just off South Street. His killers, it’s now believed, were members of the neighborhood’s Irish immigrant community. They were willing to kill to prevent Black folks from voting.
The irony is that at that time the Irish themselves were barely white. Philadelphia was a major destination for lots of immigrants—Italian, Irish, Polish, Jewish—who were fleeing violence and oppression in Europe. When they arrived, they integrated with the city, experiencing both continuing racism and tantalizing proximity to whiteness. Other than Jewish immigrant communities, these groups were almost entirely Catholic. In the century that followed, these marginalized European ethnic groups bought their way onto the island of American whiteness, in part by picking up anti-Black racism.
The anti-Black racism of the nineteenth century cast long shadows in the twentieth. In the 1960s, Philadelphia had developed into a profoundly segregated urban landscape, enforced through white violence. In 1966, for instance, the Wright family moved into an all-white neighborhood in the Kensington district of North Philadelphia. Their white neighbors gathered outside their home night after night to hurl bricks, bottles and racial slurs at the Black family. Some of the protesters were seen carrying Confederate flags and mock civil rights placards. In one photo, some gleeful white demonstrators are holding a crude sign that says their neighborhood, quote, will “fight to stay white.” They burned the family in effigy. The police were there, but they seemed to do only the bare minimum to tamp down the situation. The riots were eventually quelled, but the family faced constant harassment and left within a year.
In addition to desegregating neighborhoods, there was a mounting effort to desegregate schools, both public and parochial. Civil rights activists, including Martin Luther King, Jr., picketed Girard College in North Philadelphia, a school for orphans that had been chartered with a mandate to only serve white children. The demonstrators were met with a brutal police crackdown. The commanding officer on the scene was Deputy Commissioner Frank Rizzo.
News Announcer: Frank Rizzo has been called the toughest cop in America, and that reputation has made him a hero of the lower middle-class whites who think he may become the toughest mayor in America. Tough in Rizzo’s case has meant tough on militants—Black and white and young.
Donovan: It was 1965, and Rizzo was already well-known inside the police department. Rank-and-file white cops loved him because he always took their side against the higher-ups. They thought of him as a cop’s cop. He had built up his reputation in the 1950s, busting up gay bars and beatnik cafes. He hated the liberal approach to policing that emphasized community relations and outreach.
News Announcer: Governor Sharp [sic] has charged that while Rizzo was on the police force, he personally participated in the beating of a Black demonstrator. Six years ago, as Police Commissioner, Rizzo often rode through the streets at night in his unmarked car, ready to take charge of putting down disturbances. He once led a raid on Philadelphia’s Black Panther Party headquarters and had six members of the group stripped and photographed to humiliate them.
Donovan: The Girard College protests brought Rizzo into the public eye. This was the springboard to his appointment as acting police commissioner. In 1966, Rizzo began his term as acting commissioner with a series of raids on local offices of Black civil rights organizations.
Rizzo (News Clip): Break their heads is right. They try to break yours, you break theirs first. You’re dealing with criminals, with barbarians. You’re safer in the jungle.
Donovan: Even after he became commissioner, he insisted on leading his troops from the front in all clashes with civil rights demonstrators. When Black activists demanded more Black teachers in city schools in 1967, Rizzo was on the scene. He is said to have shouted “get their Black asses” before personally leading a charge with truncheons and shields. This didn’t hurt Rizzo at all. It helped him cement his reputation among whites as a law and order stalwart.
News Announcer: Police commissioner of Philadelphia, Frank Rizzo, resigned today to run for mayor.
Donovan: When Rizzo ran for mayor in 1971, his political strategy was very simple. He concentrated exclusively on white voters in South Philly and the newly developed Northeast, declining to even show up in Black neighborhoods, churches, and community events. His campaign themes focused on his personal story, growing up the son of immigrants in a South Philly rowhome, and on issues like cracking down on crime, protecting Roman Catholic parochial schools from city meddling, and restoring the values of discipline and hard work. Liberals and civil rights activists hated Rizzo. They even endorsed his Republican opponent to try to block his rise. But blue-collar whites, especially in the Catholic white ethnic enclaves, worshiped him. They saw him as the savior of their city and their way of life. This was when the title, “the city’s salvation,” started to stick. That’s how intense the magnetic field around Rizzo was. And that’s what swept him into office.
News Announcer: Former Police Commissioner Frank Rizzo, who describes himself as the toughest cop in America, campaigned hard on law and order. His liberal Republican opponent charged that Rizzo’s campaign was implicitly racist and a call for a police state. Most of Rizzo’s support came from working-class whites. He won with 53% of the vote.
Donovan: As Rizzo racked up victories. He became a nationally known political brand. He sided with white Philly residents who were using tactics like organized demonstrations and vigilante violence to keep Black folks out of their neighborhoods. Interestingly, these groups rarely actually won the inevitable legal battles, but having Rizzo representing their interests seemed to make them feel like they were on top. In 1975, he survived a primary challenge and vowed revenge on his political opponents. Rizzo, notorious for his hostility to Philadelphia’s gay community, repeatedly used an offensive slur in referring to how he would deal with his enemies.
Digitized Voice: I’m going to make Attila the Hun look like a f****t.
Donovan: The “he says what he wants to say” strategy paid off. Rizzo was reelected with 65% of the vote.
In his second term in office, even as he fought through political scandals, Rizzo emboldened the police department to act with impunity, affirming over and over that cops were allowed to “make mistakes” in the process of doing their jobs. In 1977, the Philadelphia Inquirer ran an exposé of the Philly Police Department’s culture of tyranny and brutality.
News Announcer: The US Department of Justice filed suit against the city of Philadelphia, its mayor, and other officials, charging they allowed constant brutality in the city police department. The suit said people in general were abused and denied their rights, but the main victims were blacks and Hispanics.
Donovan: This happened just as Rizzo was thinking about his own political future. Under Philadelphia’s city charter, mayors could serve no more than two consecutive terms. Rizzo came up with a strategy to get around this. He would campaign for a charter amendment to open the door to a third term. Propelling this campaign was a new theme, encapsulated in a line Rizzo uttered to an all-white audience in Northeast Philly:
Digitized Voice: “Vote White.”
Donovan: Rizzo brought the racialized politics that had always been the hidden pillar of his brand onto the stage in the most visible way possible. He affirmed that he was the champion of, in his words, “white ethnics” and sought to lock down this voting bloc with direct appeals to their racial interests.
Rizzo (News Clip): When you deal with Black reporters, you can’t get a fair shake, in my opinion. So, huh, you know, I got to see some more Italian, Ital-American reporters, some Polish reporters, you know, some of the ethnics that might represent us and get our side.
Donovan: Still, Rizzo insisted he was not racist and rejected an endorsement from a Louisiana branch of the Ku Klux Klan. Accusations of corruption and his many policy failures dragged on his campaign, though, and he lost the charter amendment fight by a nearly 2-to-1 margin.
Rizzo was the champion of, in his phrase, the “white ethnics.” This wasn’t just about race or ethnicity, though. The story of Rizzo’s rise is also about a highly politicized American Christianity.
Anthea Butler: To be simple about it, white Christian nationalism is the belief that America is a Christian nation, that America has a special place in the world, and that also that those who believe it is a part of white Anglo-Saxon Protestantism. It is the way in which the nation and the idea of Christianity are wrapped together.
Donovan: That’s Professor Anthea Butler again. She’s interested in exactly this question of how race, religion, and politics come bundled together. She and other scholars have named this powerful political formula—so popular throughout American history—“white Christian nationalism.” Interestingly, she stresses the Protestant roots of white Christian nationalism. So I asked her: is there a Catholic white Christian nationalism?
Anthea Butler: There definitely is a white Christian nationalism for Catholics. Many white American Catholics have turned into evangelicals. In other words, they don’t recognize their own tradition anymore. The kinds of ways in which social justice and other issues that Dorothy Day does—is not recognizable to them. They’re more Pat Buchanan-style Catholics, okay? They want God and country. They want law and order. These things sync up with evangelicals and other white Christian nationalists that think this way.
Donovan: In other words, white Christian nationalism in its white Catholic strain has been severed from the Catholic social justice tradition. Instead, it’s become fixated on flag-waving, law and order, and the politics of whiteness. If this sounds familiar and contemporary, it should.
Donald Trump (News Clip): We believe in strong families and safe communities. We protect religious liberty. We treasure our freedom. We are proud of our history. We support the rule of law and the incredible men and women of law enforcement.
Donovan: That would be former President Donald Trump. Like Rizzo, Trump’s political brand is white reaction. People of color, in the vision they put forward, are takers, illegitimately profiting off the spoils of hardworking, white taxpayers.
Trump Campaign Ad: You know what’s deplorable? Hillary Clinton viciously demonizing hard working people like you. I’m Donald Trump and I approve this message.
Donovan: Rizzo and Trump were both politicians who played up brash, tough guy personas with special connections to blue collar culture. This is how Donald Trump, Jr., characterizes his father.
Donald Trump, Jr. (News Clip): He understands people. I mean, he’s a, he’s a very, you know, blue-collar guy in his own respect. He’s a blue-collar billionaire.
Donovan: The sense on the part of angry white people of “this guy gets us” is there for both Rizzo and Trump. The unwavering support in the face of incompetence and corruption is there. That includes blaming the media and insisting that Rizzo was always in the right—even when he failed a lie detector test, even when he was found to have appropriated public funds to build himself a mansion in Chestnut Hill. Trump, by the way, lived in Philadelphia from 1966 to 1968 while a student at the University of Pennsylvania. Was he taking notes on Rizzo’s blustering, scene-stealing tactics watching the nightly news?
Rizzo (News Clip): This is a cake walk.
Andrea Mitchell (News Clip): Would you call this your most serious political crisis?
Rizzo (News Clip): No. So you’ll know I’m not a politician. And it means nothing to me about “political crisis.”
Andrea Mitchell (News Clip): How do you define politician if you’re not a politician?
Rizzo (News Clip): Politicians are crooks. Generally
News Announcer: Rizzo says he’s no politician…
Donovan: One of the features of white Christian nationalism is that it tends to be, at best, theologically loose. The “Christian” term of the equation isn’t so much about a deep engagement with Christian doctrine or ethics. Instead, it’s about Christianity as a flag—or as a football team. It’s Christianity as an identity package, something that defines you as a “something”—and, just as importantly, defines who you hate. We often overstate the extent to which religion is about theological commitments. What drives religion forward very often is really those things we may or may not be fully aware of, like the joy of the sense of belonging to a community, or the exhilaration of defining a group of hostile others and hating them. Both Trump and Rizzo fit the bill.
Remember that for Rizzo, all of this hate and vitriol was deliberate. It’s what made him successful, even God-like. And it’s why his supporters called him “the city’s salvation.” But wherever there’s hate, there’s resistance. In June of 2020, during the protests, after George Floyd was murdered, a bronze statue of Rizzo that stood across from City Hall was taken down.
News Announcer: It stood across city hall for more than 20 years. But now the statue of former Philadelphia mayor and police commissioner Frank Rizzo is gone.
Donovan: And a few days later, that mural of Rizzo in the Italian market was painted over. I never actually saw the statue before it was removed, but Professor Butler did.
Anthea Butler: Well, you know, I never thought that the original statue was a thing of beauty. It just looked like this guy reaching out for something—or reaching out to choke your neck—every time I walked by it on my way to something in Center City Philadelphia.
Donovan: For Professor Butler, the Rizzo statue represented the worst of the city.
Anthea Butler: But Rizzo was like a larger than life mythology in Philadelphia. It’s like where William Penn is on the top of City Hall, Rizzo was at the bottom of City Hall. He represented, like, the ditch of Philadelphia—instead of the high aspirational point of William Penn.
Donovan: I’m standing at the foot of Philadelphia City Hall. Around the block, there’s no trace of the Rizzo statue left. Down here, though, I can see Penn on top of City Hall. Both statues, it seems to me, are religious in their own ways. Rizzo was a representative of racial dominance. He’s a man of the people. But not all people. His statue amplified white Christian nationalism—rooted in Catholic identity—instantiating white supremacy in the city through an invocation of race, religion and power. The Penn statue has its own aspirational value, but also its own questionable history.
Down here at street level, there’s another statue, bronze, 12 feet high, but on a low plinth. So it feels like he’s down here with us. It was only placed here a few years ago. This is Octavius Catto, the activist for Black voting rights and education, murdered in South Philly on Election Day in 1871. He was only 32 years old when he was killed. The Catto statue is unusual. His chest is raised and his arms are down beside him with his palms elevated, his face is strong and his gaze seems to be fixed on horizon a thousand miles away. The most peculiar feature is his stance, which is pitched forward one foot behind him. It’s a posture that is both humble and powerful. He looks half like he’s singing and half like he’s about to take flight. He’s a martyr, but he’s also a prophet. You can see it in his face.
A half circle of standing stone monuments behind him displays a passage from one of his speeches. It reads:
There must come a change which shall force upon this nation that course which Providence seems wisely to be directing.
William Penn, high above us, referred to Philadelphia as his “holy experiment.” The statue of Catto was about fulfilling that vision, calling Providence to build a city of brotherly love.
This audio project was produced in collaboration with the Religion, Race, and Democracy Lab at the University of Virginia, with help from the lab’s senior producer, Emily Gadek, and the lab’s editor, Kelly Hardcastle Jones. I want to send special thanks to my research assistant, Nina Pham. I also want to shout out Timothy Lombardo’s excellent book, Blue-Collar Conservatism: Frank Rizzo’s Philadelphia and Populist Politics, published by the University of Pennsylvania Press in 2018. News clips were sourced from the Vanderbilt Television News Archive and NBC News. Music in this podcast comes from Blue Dot sessions. You can find more documentary research on religion, race and democracy and more stories from the Lab Summer Institute at ReligionLab.Virginia.edu.
This project started for me with a reflection on how power is projected over the urban landscape, not just by laws and their physical enforcement, but through subtler channels that don’t rely on brute force. These channels include what we often think of as ornaments—monuments, memorials, and other objects that make up the material culture of space. These objects, I would argue, have a powerful shaping influence on the kinds of spaces we live in and, in particular, who owns that space.
In Philly, we lived for a long time under the shadow of two such objects, both dedicated to the same man, Frank Rizzo: a bronze statue in Thomas Paine plaza (across from City Hall) and a colorful mural in South Philadelphia’s Italian Market. Frank Rizzo was a police commissioner in Philadelphia who was elected mayor in 1971. He served as mayor throughout the 1970s. Rizzo was very forward about his commitment to the constituencies that brought him to power, those he called “white ethnics”—especially Polish, Italian, and Irish-American communities in South and Northeast Philly. Already as a beat cop and then police commissioner in the 1960s, he had built a reputation for hostility to Blacks, Latino/as, and civil rights demonstrators. This reputation was exactly what some members of these “white ethnic” groups liked about him. And that politics of resentment was the jet fuel that propelled him into city hall.
Rizzo was a “tough on crime” mayor, who allowed rampant abuse to reign in the city’s police department. A series of Philadelphia Inquirer articles exposed this festering culture of police brutality, leading to a highly unusual lawsuit against the city, the Philly PD, and Rizzo himself by the US Department of Justice. Rizzo died in 1991 during the middle of yet another campaign for mayor. The mural went up in 1995 and the statue in 1998. Both were removed by the city in the span of a few days in June 2020, during the protests in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
There’s been a lot of discussion of how Rizzo was a premonition of Donald Trump. (I note in the podcast that Trump was a student at the University of Pennsylvania between 1966 and 1968, which means he would have had a front row seat to Rizzo’s rise on the nightly news.) Both brewed law-and-order policy, faith-and-freedom rhetoric, and white grievance into a winning political formula. Scholars are increasingly studying American fascist movements like Trumpism in terms of white Christian nationalism—an ideology that sees American citizenship as typically white and Christian, with all others locked in a subordinate position.
I wanted to look at how this framework could be applied to Rizzo, and called in Prof. Anthea Butler, an expert in this field, to help. Butler’s book White Evangelical Racism makes the case that you can’t disentangle conservative Christianity in the US from white supremacism. It’s not about the theology; it’s about a background set of assumptions that insist that white/Christian identity should always be on top.
Butler is especially interested in how this is advanced by Protestants. So I asked her about whether there could be a Catholic version of white Christian nationalism. She enthusiastically confirmed that there could be, but with a twist: white Catholic nationalism, she told me, has detached itself from the Catholic social justice tradition—and even, in many ways, from church teachings themselves—and become a hollow clone of conservative white evangelicalism, fixated on domination and control at all costs. As she said in our interview, “social justice and other issues that Dorothy Day does [are] not recognizable to them. They’re more Pat Buchanan-style Catholics… They want God and country. They want law and order. These things sync up with evangelicals and other white Christian nationalists.”
Both Catholic and Protestant versions of white Christian nationalism supersede morality; they fixate on winning at all costs. Rizzo fits this mold. He was strongly associated with his Italian identity, and one of his core policies was protecting Catholic parochial schools from city interference. It wasn’t really about Catholic theology or Catholic ethics. Instead, it was about Catholicism as an identity—closely wrapped up with whiteness—that was presented as a flag to rally around.
Viewed through this lens, the Rizzo statue and mural were religious. They reflected a white Christian nationalist vision for Philly. Commemorating—in a highly visible way—a viciously racist and homophobic mayor was a way of instantiating a hierarchy of who was on top in the city and who was on the bottom. And that’s also why the removal of the statue and mural triggered so much fury. Countering the material culture of white Christian nationalism was felt, by Rizzo’s supporters, as a direct challenge to their power—their ownership—over the city.
Butler, Anthea. White Evangelical Racism: The Politics of Morality in America. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2021.
Daughen, Joseph R. and Peter Binzen. The Cop Who Would Be King: The Honorable Frank Rizzo. New York, NY: Little, Brown, and Company, 1977.
Hurdle, Jon, and Maria Cramer. “Philadelphia Removes Statue Seen as Symbol of Racism and Police Abuse.” The New York Times. June 3, 2020. Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/03/us/frank-rizzo-statue-removal.html
Lombardo, Timothy J. Blue-Collar Conservatism: Frank Rizzo’s Philadelphia and Populist Politics. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2018.
Tafelski, Tanner. “Looking Back at Philadelphia’s Notoriously Racist Mayor Frank Rizzo.” Hyperallergic. June 15, 2020. Available at: https://hyperallergic.com/571133/amateur-night-frank-rizzo-documentary-philadelphia/