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Reflections on the Rochester Riots


Walter Cooper, Ph.D, was a scientist at the Eastman Kodak Research Laboratories until his retirement in 1986. Among his many national, state, and local activities, Cooper was Chairman of the Education Committee of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) from 1959 to 1965, a Founding Member of the Rochester Urban League in 1965, and a Regent of the State of New York from 1988 to 1997. Cooper, who dealt first-hand with the riots, was among those interviewed in conjunction with July '64, a documentary film airing at 8 p.m. Saturday on WXXI (channel 21, cable 11).

Looking back on the events leading to the riots in Rochester, July 24-26,1964, it is apparent that an extreme myopia existed among institutional leaders. A succession of incidents in the early 1960s should have signified to a sensitive community that there were serious and legitimate grievances on the part of the black community. At that time, blacks were essentially disenfranchised with respect to their educational and economic rights.

            The conditions that precipitated the riots were myriad and complex. One of the major contributions was the rapid increase in the non-white population, which had grown almost exponentially from 7,000 in 1950 to approximately 24,000 in 1960.

            This population growth was fueled by the settling of migrant laborers, who worked the farms in the region, and the beginning of an influx of professionally trained blacks. Even if they so desired, neither the white nor the limited black institutions (churches) possessed the absorptive power to accept and integrate these newcomers into the institutional life of the community.

            Residential segregation in Rochester was severe and accelerating. Eighty percent of the black population was concentrated in only six of the 89 Census tracts. (Housing discrimination was not experienced by blacks alone; covenants limited access to quality housing for Jews and Italians.)

            With respect to the black population, a report by a special committee of the Brick Presbyterian Church (chaired by Harold C. Passer) stated, "It is doubtful whether anything will be done to alleviate the housing problems for Negroes in Rochester until racial prejudice is reduced. The potential leaders, the real-estate agents, the law-enforcement agencies; none of these is likely to take a strong stand for Negroes without public support."

            Housing discrimination was applied equally without regard to educational background or economic status. It was estimated that it required two to three years for a professionally trained black to find decent housing. Some short-circuited the process by empowering a white colleague with the power-of-attorney to purchase a house.

            With respect to economic status, as defined by the job picture, the 1955 Census shows that 56.9 percent of black male workers and 63.4 percent of black female workers in Rochester were in the following categories of the occupational scale: domestic workers, service workers, and unskilled laborers. In contrast, less than 11 percent of white male workers and 17 percent of white female workers were in the same three classifications.

            Thus, the economic plight of the 7,000 blacks was precarious at best. The economic decline of the black population accelerated like the population, as indicated by a special Census of 1964, which shows a poverty index of 31 percent for the approximately 34,000 blacks in Rochester.

            The educational system was a mirror image of the residential patterns. Thirty percent of the schools became predominantly black, leading to a lawsuit against the district in May 1962, charging de-facto segregation. It is interesting to note that the suit, adjudicated by the New York State chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), was filed by 20 black and white parents. This represented the first school desegregation suit nationally in which the plaintiffs were multi-racial.

In the early 1960s the civil rights movement had a great impact on the hopes and aspirations of the non-white community of Rochester. Visits to the city by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Ralph Abernathy, Thurgood Marshall, and other luminaries of the movement had awakened members of the black community to assess their own status in Rochester. The NAACP was reinvigorated and a frontal attack on housing, education, and employment discrimination was initiated. Political representation began to emerge and evolve. A black woman, Constance Mitchell, became Supervisor of the Third Ward in 1962.

            Among the other dynamics that would play a role in transforming a somewhat docile black community was the development of a new generation of young, educated leaders (including Father Quintin Primo Jr., president of the local NAACP) as described in the seminal series of articles published in the Rochester Times Union in 1960 by Jack Germond and Desmond Stone, entitled "The Winds of Change." This series was entered into the Congressional Record by Harlem Congressman Adam Clayton Powell. The winds were upon us, but the power in the community operated in a sea of tranquility.

            Police brutality was the hot-button issue that was the universal experience of blacks. Numerous cases of alleged abuse were common knowledge in black neighborhoods.

            One of the most flagrant cases was that of Rufus Fairwell in August, 1962. The police department promised to publish the findings of an investigation into the incident. At the last moment it refused to do so. No officers were disciplined for the brutality. A Grand Jury investigated the case and delivered its findings: Fairwell did not assault the policemen; they did not assault him. Yet Fairwell suffered two cracked vertebrae and severe damage to his eye. He appeared at his hearing in a wheelchair.

            Other cases of brutality were reported. Among them was the A.C. White case of January 1963, followed by a sit-in at the police station one month later, on February 20. Compounding the tensions was the Black Muslim trial of February 1963. The organization had faced harassment at its Temple on North Street by the Fire Department and the police. The persecutions of the Muslims precipitated the appearance of Malcolm X in Rochester.

On January 17, 1963, at Baden Street Settlement Agency, I chaired an NAACP meeting on police brutality. An estimated crowd of between 600 to 800 people attended, and one of the featured speakers was Malcolm X, who electrified the audience with his articulate and fiery speech, as indicated by the following:

            "My people have caught hell long enough.... You do not get anything by being polite.... The only time you get something is when you let the man know you are fed up."

            The crowd responded with cheers and adulation, but he ended his speech by instructing the audience to go home in peace and not involve themselves in destructive behavior.

            It is difficult to speculate on why the institutional power of the community did not interpret the cascade of events as having the potential of an explosive outburst from the black community. There were many indications. A Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) chapter had been formed and had picketed the office of Operating Engineers, which had been denying heavy construction jobs to qualified blacks. The local NAACP began picketing F.W. Woolworth stores and the Schine Theatre chain in sympathy with the Civil Rights movement in the South in February 1959. And there was a protest by black youth against the misuse of police dogs at a skating rink on Chestnut Street.

            Furthermore, in the late-1950s, a report by the State Commission Against Discrimination entitled "Greater Rochester Takes a Look" stated, "In respect to the Negro population, Rochester today is sitting on a pressure cooker whose relief valve has long been choked. The growing concentration in a limited area can lead only to increasing social problems."

            The response to many warning reports, protests, and discussions failed to activate an arrogant and complacent power structure. Their response to all of the legitimate complaints was to maintain the illusory policy of a condescending paternalism and to accept the assurances of the recipients of that paternalism that all was well within the black community. Furthermore, the beneficiaries of this policy assured the power structure that the protest was fomented by a small group of black nationalists and agitators who did not represent either the philosophy or sentiment of the black citizens.

            Thus, the hubris of the leaders of the community left them totally unprepared for the disorder that would soon take place.

On Friday evening, July 24, 1964, the hell broke loose in the Seventh Ward. The actual confrontation began at 11:30 p.m., when police were called to subdue an intoxicated black man who was disturbing others at a black street dance on Joseph Avenue sponsored by Baden Street Settlement. When the officers attempted to haul the troublemaker into the police car, a mob from the dance formed around the policemen.

            At 11:40 p.m. an angry crowd started to throw bottles and gather in the streets. Meanwhile, every policeman in the city was notified to rush to the Joseph-Nassau vicinity. As the residents from the area, as well as the 400 dancers, poured out into the streets, they proceeded to taunt the police. Sporadic racial fights broke out between mixed residents. Glass bottles and rocks were constantly being thrown at policemen, bystanders, and cars. At 1:15 am. Police Chief William Lombard's car was overturned and set on fire by blacks as he narrowly escaped with the aid of community activist Mildred Johnson.

            The mob, furious with hatred and rage, overwhelmingly outnumbered the police. The uncontrollable madness and destruction led to a wild spread of pillaging and looting, as rows and rows of store windows were broken and entered. At 2 a.m. an attempt was made to block off the entire area, but whites, stimulated by the radio reports, began to enter.

            An hour later, in the area between the New York Central Railroad Station and the main branch of the United States Post Office, 200 whites and blacks faced each other prepared for combat as police desperately stood between them. At 4 a.m., in a no-win situation, the fire hoses were attached and the police literally forced the crowds to retreat.

            The torrent finally put out the fire in the mob, but not the spark. A state of emergency was declared at 4:20 a.m. Saturday morning by the City Manager.

            When violence had broken out in the Seventh Ward, I and several others were aware that, the following night, it would be replicated in the Third Ward. Thus, on the morning of Saturday, July 25, at the request of Constance Mitchell, community leaders gathered at her residence. It was decided that we would pass out handbills and leaflets urging citizens to remain calm and stay off of the streets at night. Unfortunately, the effort failed.

            Sporadic flare-ups occurred throughout the evening Saturday despite attempts to curb the violence.

            A curfew --- martial law --- was imposed: all citizens of the city of Rochester were to remain off the streets from 8 p.m. to 7 a.m. In addition, no alcoholic beverages were sold; movie theaters, beaches, and other recreational facilities were also closed during curfew hours.

            The riots exploded out to a 10-block radius of the demolished Joseph Avenue. Trouble was springing up at a number of spots miles apart around the city, including South Plymouth Avenue and Adams Street, Hudson Avenue and Gilmore Street, and Joseph Avenue and Herman Street. A total of 530 police were patrolling the city by midnight as the mobs were estimated to reach 3,000 by early morning. Despite the all-night curfew, rioting blacks fired shots into the air and continued to throw rocks and bottles as police fought back with tear gas.

            Governor Nelson Rockefeller ordered the National Guard in on Sunday to meet the rioters with massive group force. At 9:15 Sunday evening 250 troops, equipped with M-1 rifles and bayonets, displayed a convincing show of force. The convoy paraded through the streets to emphasize the city's determination to put an end to the violence.

            The magnitude of the emergency necessitated the mobilizing of 1,000 Reserve troops; fortunately, they were not needed. However, they assisted in roadblocks and served as a mobile reserve unit. Additional flare-ups did occur, but the "hot" areas apparently cooled off as the riots seemed to finally be under control.

The total of arrests from Friday through Monday was 600 people. Injuries amounted to 350 and three people were killed in a news helicopter crash. One white man was killed in an incident indirectly connected to the riots. The overall damage was estimated in the millions of dollars as blocks of stores were destroyed.

            The curfew, as well as the ban on alcoholic beverages, was enforced until Tuesday at 5 p.m. The National Guard remained on full alert as hundreds of city police and state troopers continued their maneuvers throughout the night. An uneasy feeling of tension and disbelief saturated the atmosphere as the city began to resume normality.

            Along with the store owners, after-the-fact investigators, new committees, organizations, and boards all had ample work to do as a result of the long weekend.

            The fact that the riots occurred with so few deaths indicated that the rage was directed at the symbols of the power of the white establishment and property in the run-down ghetto, which the participants inhabited.

            Could there be another riot in the near future? It is debatable. The sense of community and unity of purpose within the black population has disappeared. There is a lack of dynamic and charismatic leadership. Police-community relations have improved. Moral outrage is absent on issues of grave concern --- e.g. the potential loss of school nurses and the 30-percent graduation rate in the primarily minority Rochester school district. We are left with an amorphous black community seemingly without purpose and direction.

Hot summer, frozen in time

When July '64 is broadcast Saturday evening, Rochester-area residents will be transported back four decades to the most turbulent time in the city's history.

            The documentary film, produced by Chris Christopher and directed by Carvin Eison, explores the causes and effects of the riots that gripped Rochester for three days in the summer of 1964. Using archival footage, news reports, and interviews with a variety of commentators, the film promises to provide a vivid sense of the racial unrest that percolated in our community.

            Among those interviewed are New York State Assemblyman David Gantt, Minister Franklin Florence, community activists Constance Mitchell and Dr. Walter Cooper, musicians Chuck and Gap Mangione, and former Gannett reporter Jack Germond, who wrote extensively about the city's racial tensions in the early 1960s. The documentary is narrated by actor Roscoe Lee Browne.

            The score for July '64 consists of a never-before released live recording of Duke Ellington and the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra performing Ellington's 1955 composition "Night Creature." Eisen and Christopher found the recording in the Eastman School of Music's Sibley Library after they learned that Ellington had performed in Rochester less than two weeks after the riots.

            At the time of the riots, Christopher was 10 years old and living in Henrietta. "But you couldn't live here and not remember it," she says.

            Christopher's reason for creating the documentary is a compelling one: "There was a lot of feeling in the community that the telling of this history has been one-sided."

            The film, which is a national PBS project, was years in the making. After working with Gantt to obtain funding from the state, the filmmakers (in conjunction with WXXI) were able to leverage national grants through the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

            "Then we just started with the research and started talking to people," Christopher says. "The first thing I did was read Mark Hare's Rochester: Remaking of a City. It's a great book for pulling together basic information. It gave us a reasonable lay of the land. Then I went to the local history department and read clips. But the best source I found was the William J. Bub, Jr. collection at the University of Rochester's Rare Book's library."

            The next step was putting together a list of people to interview. Gantt provided the initial names and one person led to another.

            "When we hit the 75-hour mark, we realized we had enough material. We had to make some tough choices editing it all down to one hour."

            Through her research, Christopher found that many of the social problems that existed at the time of the riots persist today. And, in many cases, they're harsher.

            "We commissioned a study through the Center for Governmental Research to look at the two neighborhoods where rioting took place, then and now," she says. "It includes demographic shifts from the 1950 Census to the 2000 Census. And then we looked at certain quality-of-life indicators --- educational attainment, housing, home ownership, employment --- to see how those numbers may or may not have changed."

            They found that there was a direct correlation in the numbers from the wards where the riots took place to current city-county figures. In terms of minority population, the relationship of these wards to the entire city of Rochester in 1960 almost directly parallels the current population of the city of Rochester in relation to the population of Monroe County.

            "The phenomenon still exists, only over a larger geographic region," Christopher says. "The quality of life indicators have gone down; they're actually worse than they were then. We were not terribly surprised by that, but we were surprised by the population findings."

            "July '64" airs on WXXI (Channel 21, cable 11) on Saturday, July 24, at 8 p.m. July 24 marks the 40th anniversary of the Rochester Riots.