The Philadelphia Black Mafia: Angelo Bruno, Frank Matthews and the death of Major Coxson (Part One)

In 1973, Major Coxson was shot dead in his New Jersey home. A powerful figure in nearby Philadelphia, Coxson was a nightclub owner, political candidate, and reportedly a key player in the city’s turbulent underworld. At the time of his death, he had reportedly been working as an intermediary between Mafia boss Angelo Bruno, mysterious heroin distributor Frank Matthews, and a violent Philadelphian street gang called the Black Mafia. Established in 1968 by members of a local chapter of the Nation of Islam, the Philadelphia Black Mafia would be suspected in multiple murders, including Coxson’s, during their dramatic rise in the streets of Philadelphia.

Much of the history of the Black Mafia is shrouded in mystery, with former Philadelphia police officer, Sean Patrick Griffin, the leading authority on the group. According to Griffin, the group is believed have started using the name in September 1968 as they were coalescing around the Nation of Islam’s Mosque No. 12, led at the time by Jeremiah Shabazz. Led by Sam Christian, the Philadelphia Black Mafia had been a loose collection of underworld figures, who stole or extorted money from other criminals. Having clashed with other Black Muslims, the PBM would reach an agreement with the Shabazz sometime around the start of 1970.

Under this deal, Shabazz would help the group become an official enforcement arm of the NOI in Philly, allowing them to deal drugs, commit murders and set up a citywide protection racket. Implying that racial sensitivity slowed the investigation, Griffin notes that his fellow officers in the Philadelphia Police Department only started keeping tabs on the Black Mafia in 1972. However, it should be noted that Frank Rizzo, the city’s police commissioner until 1971, had a notoriously poor relationship with Philadelphia’s Black community.

As head of the PPD, Rizzo had been a staunch defender of the city’s established systems of power, which had been increasingly weakened in the 1960s. These powerful political machines had controlled cities such as Philadelphia with the support of the Mafia and other organised crime groups. These systems of patronage had emerged in the later years of the 19th century, during the waves of “white ethnic” immigration from countries such as Italy or Greece. By the end of World War One, they were deeply entrenched, with the local athletic clubs carrying out racist attacks on Black migrants in cities such as Philadelphia.

During the rise, the machines had displaced the existing elites in local politics, who traced their lineage back to the country’s founding settlers and were more loosely organised. Confronted by the rise of the machines, they had begun to push for reforms to local government that they hoped would return them to power. When it came to municipal elections, their attempts were largely resisted for the first half of the early 20th century. However, the reformist agenda was strong in powerful elements of the country’s elite, from big business to Ivy League universities and the federal government.

A notable exception to the reformism of the federal government was its main law enforcement agency, the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Led by staunch traditionalist J. Edgar Hoover, the FBI did little to counter the power of the American Mafia or the Ku Klux Klan. Instead, Hoover concentrated his attention on attacking the reformists, particularly the more radical figures which orbited around them. In 1965, a prominent target of Hoover’s was Malcolm X, who had brought the Nation of Islam, and himself, to national prominence through appearances in the media. In doing so, he had brought with him the actual leader of the NOI, Elijah Muhammad, who would soon clash with his former disciple.

Back in 1960, Malcolm first been interviewed for television by Louis Lomax, the first Black graduate of Yale University. The broadcast had launched his career, which had seen him catapulted to national attention for his rejection of integration, only to reject the Nation of Islam and embrace racial solidarity four years later. In 1965, he spoke at a Socialist Workers Party event, as part of a potential turn to a more Marxian view of the world. A few months later he was dead, shot and killed during a public appearance by several followers of the NOI.

Naturally, suspicion fell on the Nation itself. With their leader Elijah Muhammad based in Chicago, any investigation of a wider conspiracy would have been a matter for the FBI, but in the end, the case never went further than New York. Even if this was true, the circumstances would have been more than enough for Hoover to persecute the group if he had wanted to. Instead however, it appears that, with Malcolm gone, Hoover soon swung his attention to old targets such as Martin Luther King Jr, along with newer threats like the Black Panther Party. In a 1968 book, To Kill a Black Man, Louis Lomax would allege that a high-ranking member of the Nation of Islam, John Ali, had been an FBI informant. By 1970, Lomax was dead, having apparently crashed his car while driving along in New Mexico.

Although the reformists had suffered a setback with the loss of Malcolm X, by that point, the overall momentum of the conflict was swinging rapidly in their favour. In early 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson had declared a War on Poverty, establishing various agencies dedicated to the plight of the growing underclass in America. A large part of the descendants of former slaves, who had migrated in large numbers to Northern cities after World War Two. At best, they had been relegated to the bottom place in the machine, if not completely shut out, which made their situation a weak point for the overall structure.

Crucial to the War on Poverty was the Office of Economic Opportunity, which spend vast amounts of money, setting up Community Action Agencies across America. Although this was all being done in the name of poverty reduction, the nature of power politics meant it would use dispossessed minority groups as a counterweight to the existing machines, particularly in the area of organised crime. Naturally, the War on Poverty quickly led to conflict with local authorities, most violently in areas with entrenched political machines. In the Community Action Agencies, a key area of dispute would be their composition, with both sides interpreting the legislation’s call for ”maximum feasible participation” of the marginalised in their own way.

Generally speaking, the machines immediately stacked the CAA boards with their people, while the reformists pushed for the appointment of figures more sympathetic to their worldview. In Philadelphia, where Mayor James Tate was closely associated with the local Democratic Party, the initial attempts to create a taskforce under the strict control of city hall were quickly rejected. In August 1964, civil unrest broke out, with an expelled member of the Nation of Islam charged with sparking the violence:

Two weeks after the riot, police arrested Shaykh Muhammad…for inciting the riot…finding fabric-stuffed bottles, large quantities of cleaning fluid, and an “arsenal” of guns and knives in the African-Asian Culture Center on Columbia Ave. Muhammad formed the Center as a religious establishment, which sun-lighted as a drycleaner…Muhammad formerly adhered to the Nation of Islam (NOI), which expunged him as a liability for his hyper-militancy. Muhammad allegedly created his own version of Islam, combining NOI teachings with militant Black Nationalism, founded the African-Asian Culture Center, and was a well-known Muslim leader and business owner in the community.

Muhammad was sentenced to a term of 18 months to three years, represented by influential local lawyer Cecil B. Moore. It appears that Muhammad then became a fairly low-key community leader, dying in 2002. A year after the 1964 unrest, Tate’s taskforce was replaced by the Philadelphia Antipoverty Action Committee, which was set up with the of America’s wealthiest philanthropic organisation, the Ford Foundation. Although the Mayor attempted to retain control of the PAAC, he was forced to concede to a new structure in 1967 which gave greater power to the reformists.

By that point, a major recipient of funding was Baptist minister Leon Sullivan, through his Opportunities Industrialization Centre. Like the PAAC, the start-up capital for the OIC was provided by the Ford Foundation, a major non-governmental vehicle of the reformist agenda. Along with their support of the PAAC and OIC, the group would sponsor programmes linked to the Black Power movement across the country, particularly in machine cities such as Philadelphia.

A notable exception to the Ford Foundation’s embrace of Black Power during this period was the Nation of Islam. Instead, the NOI was forced to contend with rival Black Muslim groups more aligned with the reformist cause. Along with Shaykh Muhammad in Philadelphia, the Nation of Gods and Earths, more commonly known as the Five Percenters, had begun to attract attention. Located in New York’s Harlem neighbourhood, where Malcolm X had been based, the Five Percenters left the NOI around the time of the assasination of Malcolm X, with the new group located in the same Harlem neighbourhood as the fallen icon.

Led by another former follower of Elijah Muhammad, Clarence 13X, the new group resisted opposition of the Nation of Islam, as well as that of the FBI, to forge an enduring legacy in New York’s Black community. The rise of the Five Percenters was likely aided by their relationship with reformist Mayor John Lindsay, who had taken office in defiance of local political machine Tammany Hall. Through aide Barry Gottehrer, Lindsay arranged for the Five Percenters to hold events, and set up a school. After the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr, the Five Percenters would be credited with preventing the civil unrest which broke out in big cities across the country. Then, in June 1969, Clarence 13X, who had begun calling himself Allah, was shot dead. The case remains unsolved, although, as with Malcolm X’s assassination, rumours of an NOI conspiracy quickly circulated.

A couple of months earlier, the first murder attributed to the various figures who would become known as the Black Mafia had taken place. The story goes that their co-founder, Nathaniel Williams, had set up a robbery at a craps game, although the true cause could have been related to power struggles within the new organisation. Along with various murders, and the overdose of a potential witness, an early crime attributed to Philadelphia’s Black Mafia was an attack on a Pennsylvania Deputy Insurance commissioner, David Trulli, who had initially come to the region in the mid-1960s as an Assistant Attorney General of the Department of Justice, likely to crack down on corrupt practices associated with the city machine.

Then, in early 1971, a brutal attack took place on the premises of a prominent business on Philadelphia’s South Street. During the assault, Black Mafia members shot and beat several civilians, with one dying of his wounds. By this point, the group was expanding their protection racket, and Dubrow’s had refused to pay. With its inner-city location, the Jewish-owned store lay along the racial frontline, which had become more apparent during the 1960s. Religious differences aside, Jews occupied a relatively high place in machine politics, with the growing tensions between them and Black Power activists leading both sides to make charges of racism. Behind the scenes, these tensions were actively encouraged by Hoover, likely recognising the issue as a weak point in the reformist side.

By this point, the growing tensions in America’s inner-cities had exploded, leading to the election of conservative Richard Nixon in 1968. Winning office support from Democrats in the North, as well as the South, Nixon had first risen to national fame in the late 1940s as a prominent member of the House Un-American Activities Committee. Like fed information by J. Egar Hoover, Nixon would now authorise the FBI to step its activities, particularly their notorious Counter-Intelligence Program, as he attempted to fulfill his pledge to restore the status quo. Although, for the most part, he was unsuccessful, the Nixon years would signal the final showdown between the two forces, causing turmoil in the streets of America.



Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store