By Bill Droel
Fifty years ago this month the City of Rochester exploded in three days of frustration, confusion, destruction, looting, arrests of 1,000 people, injuries to 350 and four deaths. It was among the first of 750 urban riots to occur within a seven-year time frame.
The event came as a surprise in a city with a humming economy, including several specialty companies like Eastman Kodak, Bausch & Lomb Optical, Stromberg-Carlson and Xerox. Politicians, business leaders, journalists or ordinary citizens could not imagine such massive antisocial behavior, nor could they understand why some neighborhoods might be seething with rage. Never in the Flower City.
Responses to the riot included increased police presence, volunteers to repair damaged buildings, and some philanthropic and governmental programs to address education and social services. Something different, however, was proposed by a small group of Protestant leaders—clergy and lay. They went back to a title recently considered in their book discussion club: Crisis in Black and White by Charles Silberman (Random House, 1964). Its themes included dignity and power. In particular, the church leaders focused on 36 pages near the book’s conclusion—a case study of The Woodlawn Organization on Chicago’s south side, a project of the Industrial Areas Foundation. The church leaders contacted IAF director Saul Alinsky (1909-1972) with the intention of forming an independent power organization in Rochester (eventually called FIGHT).
Until Silberman’s book and the invitation from Rochester, Alinsky and IAF were largely unknown outside of Chicago. Prior to 1964, only a handful of Rochesterians could identify Alinsky. Yet within a few weeks of the church leaders’ invitation, 80% of the population there, according to a newspaper poll, had an opinion about Alinsky… very likely a negative opinion. The more that the local papers, television station and established agencies spoke against Alinsky, the more credibility the invitation gained at the grass-roots.
In March 1965 the Rochester sponsoring committee, with press in toe, drove to Syracuse to meet Alinsky and sign the contract with IAF. The ceremony included the first introduction of the project’s lead organizer, Ed Chambers, then 35-years old. The committee had assumed that the organizer would be black and were surprised that Chambers was white. With courage he gradually established himself within Rochester’s black community. Chambers, however, was committed to integration and used various strategies to get whites involved with FIGHT, including starting another group called Friends of Fight, later Metro-Act. His inclusiveness was in play a couple years earlier when Chambers maneuvered to have a black delegation seated at the convention of the otherwise white Organization for Southwest Community in Chicago.
Expectations were high among both detractors and supporters of FIGHT over the summer of 1965. Would another riot occur? Would enough black churches and associations take a chance on FIGHT? Chambers and FIGHT leaders spent their first two months preparing for a founding convention. Nearly 2,000 people, including several white “observers,” participated in the orderly meeting in June 1965, where planks on urban renewal, jobs, education and more were approved.
High drama returned to Rochester in September 1966 when FIGHT approached Kodak with a job training and hiring proposal. In a demand that would become quite controversial, FIGHT would refer the workers to the company. After a few weeks of little progress, a Kodak vice-president surprisingly reached out to FIGHT and a deal was soon signed. FIGHT celebrated with a Christmas party. It was, however, interrupted by a call from the vice-president. “The new Kodak president renounces the deal,” he told FIGHT leaders. Kodak thought the program was akin to an exclusive “hiring hall,” which opens the door to a union. Soon the vice-president was demoted and Kodak ended all conversation with FIGHT.
How to turn this major defeat in a positive direction? With good grace an IAF leader (perhaps Chambers, perhaps a sponsoring committee member) dreamed up the tactic of stock proxies, a forerunner of today’s corporate responsibility movement. With ten shares of Kodak stock in hand, FIGHT president Rev. Franklin Delano Roosevelt Florence along with Chambers, Alinsky and a few others interrupted the shareholders meeting with a demand that Kodak members approve the job program. Hundreds of FIGHT supporters and the national press surrounded the meeting facility.
Kodak stalled for a time, but soon a respectable compromise was reached. IAF ended its contract with FIGHT in Spring 1968.
The de-industrialization of Great Lakes’ cities has belatedly arrived in Rochester. Kodak failed to focus on digital photography and has gone bankrupt; many retirees lost their pensions. Yet Rochester continues to grow, blessed with a pool of skilled workers, entrepreneurs, college students, arts patrons and more. However, a disturbing report, Poverty and the Concentration of Poverty in the Nine-County Greater Rochester Area by Edward Doherty (Rochester Area Community Foundation, December, 2013), says that just as poverty was out of sight prior to the 1964 riot, so too today poverty is isolated, indeed in the same neighborhoods as before.
Poverty and [Its] Concentration begins with a metaphor drawn from Rochester’s once great economic engine, Kodak: The photograph of poverty is not “clearly focused. [It] is blurry; it is complex and replete with paradox.”
Rochester, as documented in Poverty and [Its] Concentration, has “an extraordinary poverty level.” It is fifth worst in the nation; behind Detroit, Hartford, Cleveland and Dayton. Rochester poverty is also quite concentrated; isolating those with adequate means from its “half-citizens and urban remnants.” Only Hartford has a higher concentration. And because poverty is so great in the city it moves “the whole metro area to the number two position” for poverty concentration in our country; second only to Fresno. The city of Buffalo, by the way, is just slightly better (by 1%) in its poverty rate (as if poverty and isolation can ever be better or worse). The expanded Buffalo metro area is slightly worse than Rochester by 7/10%.
Rochester’s poor are native-born blacks and, what the report calls “Hispanics,” who in Rochester are mostly Puerto-Rican.
What are the causes of this poverty and isolation? Poverty and [Its] Concentration names racial segregation—worse only in Buffalo, Birmingham, Grand Rapids and Louisville. Although it is no longer overt, segregation persists as the poor are trapped by inadequate education, limited housing choices, transportation problems and more. The report also mentions sprawl. Opportunities are spread widely but the poor are confined. The report also touches on the controversial topic of non-marriage. Its inclusion in Rochester’s photograph makes the prospects discouraging. That is because the children of a poor, non-married parent will likely also be poor into the next generation. In other words, poverty is not a temporary step toward upward-mobility. The highest percentage of Rochester poor is under 18; the child poverty rate in the city is 46%. More than 50% of Rochester area single-parent families with pre-school children are in poverty and almost all of the others struggle to match income with expenses.
The crucial factor in Rochester’s poverty is isolation. The photo of poverty in Rochester (and elsewhere) is not simply about economics. It is a poverty of supportive institutions that provide a buffer between isolated individuals and mega-forces against which an individual is powerless. The problem is spiritual poverty, presuming spiritual is understood to necessarily be corporate and public.
In its time FIGHT (and IAF since) helped enliven the very institutions that help families replace isolation with real agency in their culture and in society.