After a hard fought election the outsider with radical ideas won easily. He was a trial lawyer with a reputation for fighting for justice in and out of the courtroom, winning cases, and sticking to his principles even when it made him unpopular. For years he was a thorn in the side of corrupt politicians. Now he was Philadelphia’s top law enforcement official. He ran his campaign on a promise to transform local politics, and his unlikely victory turned conventional wisdom on its head overnight. The year was 1951, and Richardson Dilworth became the first Democrat elected District Attorney in Philadelphia history.
Fast forward to 2018, Larry Krasner – a defense attorney who sued the Philadelphia Police Department 75 times – took the reins of the District Attorney’s office. Krasner campaigned for reform of the office – promising a change of policies and culture, and it hasn’t been without controversy. It seemed unprecedented when Krasner fired 31 staffers in his first week and took on corrupt cops, but missing from our collective memory is that Philadelphia has seen this kind of District Attorney before.
Dilworth entered a District Attorney’s office in disarray. Philadelphia politics was corrupt – to put it mildly. In 1903, muckraker Lincoln Steffons famously called Philadelphia, “the most corrupt and the most contented,” city in America. By 1952 Philadelphia was only just beginning to reckon with its reputation and clean up City Hall.
Dilworth took charge of an anemic office not only unwilling to fight corruption, but unable to take on cases vital to public safety. There was a two-year backlog on murder cases with defendants sitting in jail cells awaiting trial. It was one of the greatest challenges for Dilworth – a Yale-educated lawyer and Marine veteran of both World Wars.
The Philadelphia Republican Party had completely controlled city politics for nearly 70 years. Democratic wins mid-century effectively brought an end to Republican machine politics. “Under decades of Republican rule, the DA’s office had been a sleepy, spiritless preserve staffed by part-timers,” wrote Peter and Jonathan Binzen in the Dilworth biography, Richardson Dilworth: Last of the Bare-Knuckled Aristocrats. “He [Dilworth] transformed it virtually overnight into a professional organization of young, energetic, talented trial lawyers who worshipped their boss.”
One of Dilworth’s first actions as District Attorney, much like his contemporary, was to bring in new staff. He consolidated the 110 part-time staff and political appointees into an office of 86 full-time professionals, and unlike his predecessors Dilworth recruited African Americans and women to argue cases in Philadelphia courtrooms – even over the strenuous objections of some judges. “Before Richardson Dilworth became district attorney, no black lawyer was ever permitted as an assistant district attorney to go into the major courts as a trial lawyer,” said A. Leon Higginbotham, Jr., an African American man hired by Dilworth. “Within one second after he took office, those centuries of oppression were wiped away by a man who put justice over political advantage, a concern for dignity over any momentary unpopularity.”
While Dilworth opened doors for African Americans and women, he literally closed doors to the corrupt underworld of Philadelphia politics. For decades, Philadelphia government and courts worked well for those willing to grease a few palms. There were 26 side-doors into the District Attorney’s offices used by fixers who had been accustomed to coming and going without a record. Dilworth had all these alternative routes sealed, posted a policeman at the main entrance, and required visitors to state their business in writing.
It was the cases of corrupt politicians and police officers that Dilworth pursued most vigorously. He even personally prosecuted a perjury case against a magistrate, delivering a passionate closing plea for conviction: “We’ve got to break up that connection – that alliance between corrupt machine politicians and the administration of justice in these courts. That’s why this prosecution was brought and that’s why we’re asking you to convict… If we don’t convict this kind of man, how are we ever going to have a decent city in which to live?”
The people who knew Dilworth and worked with him speak of a man with an unimpeachable sense of and commitment to justice. As District Attorney he eliminated practices that gave prosecutors an unfair advantage in the courtroom. He also instructed an Assistant District Attorney to review past convictions for civil rights violations. “Dick [Dilworth] insisted if we found we’d violated somebody’s rights, we were to go to court and ask for a new trial for the defendant, even if his own lawyer hadn’t found the mistake,” said ADA Sam Dash. “We were to vigorously prosecute for the people, Dilworth told us, but he reminded us we were also there to uphold the Constitution.” When he took office Dilworth appealed the wrongful conviction of a black man, taking the case all the way to the Supreme Court even as it angered Philadelphia voters. When Philadelphia veterans and Senator Joseph McCarthy were demanding the unlawful arrest and prosecution of communists, Dilworth refused and told Senator McCarthy on national television that he was worse than a thousand communist sympathizers. “We can put traitors in jail,” Dilworth pointedly told McCarthy, “but demagogues remain too long above and beyond the processes of the law.”
After his transformative tenure as District Attorney Dilworth was elected mayor, and later served as president of the Philadelphia School Board. Today, it may be difficult to see Dilworth’s reforms to the office and the city as revolutionary, but at the time they were controversial, and his defense of the civil rights of black citizens and communists likely cost him his 1962 bid for Governor of Pennsylvania.
Dilworth and Krasner are very different men with different agendas, but the core problems they address are the same: racism, corruption, and justice. We have yet to see the extent to which Krasner’s character and commitment to reform will be challenged, but we can learn something about where we are and where we’re going as a city by better understanding our past.