Like many race riots, the single cause of the one in Rochester, New York, on July 24—26, 1964, is not fully clear because the riot was a response to a larger set of issues and situations that were building. The conditions leading up to the weekend of rioting can shed light on the building tensions in the western portion of New York State. At the time, Rochester boasted the lowest unemployment rate for both blacks and whites in New York State, but many blacks felt disenfranchised with respect to their education and place within the economy.
In the decade and a half preceding the riot, there was a population explosion within Rochester's minority community. According to the 1950 census, there were 8,247 non-whites by 1960; that figure more than tripled to 25,067 residents. The population increase can be attributed to the settling of migrant workers and the arrival of professionally trained blacks to work at the city's industries (e. g., Bausch and Lomb, Eastman Kodak, and Xerox).
Integration of the new residents within the community did not occur. Residential segregation was vast. The housing discrimination against blacks was without regard to economic status or educational background. The 1955 census gives a picture of the socioeconomic situation within the black community. The census found that 56.9 percent of employed black men and 63.4 percent of working black women were classified as domestic workers, service workers, or unskilled laborers. Meanwhile, less than 11 percent of white men and 17 percent of white women were in the same positions.
With the influx of new black residents to Rochester, the education system became de facto segregated. Thirty percent of the public schools were predominantly black. By May 1962, the New York Chapter of National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) filed a desegregation lawsuit on behalf of twenty parents. Interestingly, this was the first legal action against school segregation that was taken up by parents of both races.
Finally, in the years leading up to the Rochester riot, as was the case in many other cities around the country, there were a number of police brutality allegations within the black community. As a result of the allegations, the NAACP and the police department investigated; however, the police would not publish their report.
The tensions brewing in Rochester led to a confrontation late Friday, July 24, 1964. Police were called to pacify an inebriated black man who was reportedly causing a disturbance at a street dance in Rochester's Seventh Ward. When the police arrived, they were surrounded by those attending the dance. Bottles were thrown, the crowd grew, and every policeman in the city was called to the area. The crowd outnumbered the police and looting ensued. White businesses, even those that served the black community, were pillaged. Around 2:00 a. m., as white Rochester residents heard reports of the rioting, they began to amass in the area. The police stood between the two groups and, by 4:00 a. m., used fire hoses to break up the crowds. On Saturday morning, the city manager declared a state of emergency.
Black community leaders responded Saturday morning by calling for calm, but they were not successful. The violence continued that evening. An 8:00 p. m. to 7:00 a. m. curfew was imposed throughout the city and the county went dry for five days. Despite the curfew, the rioting continued, shots were fired into the air, rocks and bottles were thrown, and police reacted by using tear gas. By Sunday, Gov. Nelson Rockefeller ordered 250 National Guard troops to subdue the rioters. They were successful. In the end, the rioting in Rochester took place over approximately sixty hours, resulted in 4 deaths, some 350 injuries, more than 800 arrests (both black and white), and property damage costing more than $1 million.
By November 1964, Edward Rutledge, executive director of the National Commission Against Discrimination in Housing criticized Rochester for not conducting a public hearing or investigation on the social causes of the riots. As a result, by March 1965, Mayor Frank T. Lamb and Rev. St. Julian A. Simp - kins, Jr., announced the formation of a new committee designed to promote interracial understanding. The committee was designed after Cincinnati's Friendly Relations Committee (later the Cincinnati Human Relations Committee) that was started after the Detroit (Michigan) Riot of 1943.
However, perhaps the most important outcome of Rochester's race riots was bringing together the black community and giving them a voice. After the riots, the Board of Urban Ministry (BUM), an assembly of Rochester's Protestant clergy, encouraged black religious leaders to organize the community. The ministers decided to invite the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) to help organize the black religious community. The SCLC declined and suggested that the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF) in Chicago be consulted.
As a result, a new community-based black-activist organization formed FIGHT (freedom, integration, god, honor, today; the "I" later changed to "independence"). FIGHT allowed Rochester's black community to speak for themselves on issues of civil rights. White civil rights supporters formed a sister organization, Friends of FIGHT (later Metro Act) to support the movement. FIGHT is best known for taking on Eastman Kodak and demanding that the company implement a job training program and hire 500 to 600 members of the black community. FIGHT was responsible for placing over 700 people in jobs by 1967. See also Civil Rights Movement.
Further Reading: July '64. Directed by Carvin Eison. Produced and written by Chris Christopher. Rochester, NY: ImageWordSound, Independent Television Service (ITVS), National Black Programming Consortium (NBPC), and WXXI-TV, 2004; Papers on the Rochester Race Riots are available at the University of Rochester Rush
Rhees Library Department of Rare Books, Special Collections and Preservation, D.185
Noah D. Drezner
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