Updated: 07/24/2014 9:01 PM
Created: 07/24/2014 5:49 PM WHEC.com
By: Janet Lomax
Fifty years ago today, violence erupted in Rochester. The riots of 1964 forever changed the history of the city.
They broke out after a 19-year-old man was arrested at a street dance on Joseph Avenue and Nassau Street for public intoxication. Many say racial tensions in the city were at an all-time high with people frustrated with the lack of job opportunities, poor housing conditions and alleged police brutality.
At the end after three days of rioting, four people were dead, nearly 1,000 others arrested and more than $1 million worth of damage left behind.
After the riots were over, many organizations like F.I.G.H.T were established to address the issues plaguing the community. Its first order of business was jobs and housing. The first elected leader of F.I.G.H.T was Minister Franklin Florence. He didn’t hesitate to take on the giants of big business to advocate for the poor.
Minister Raymond Scott said, “He was the man, at the time. He was God sent at that particular time. He was the only guy I know who could have done what he did.”
That is how Scott, a former president of F.I.G.H.T, recalls his mentor, Florence. Scott arrived in Rochester two years after the riots and served as an aide to Florence.
News10NBC’s Janet Lomax spoke with Scott on Joseph Avenue, just across the street from Fight Village. It is the second housing complex built by the F.I.G.H.T organization. The first, Fight Square was on West Main Street.
But despite some signs of progress, there were still signs of a community left behind. He says there were riots every year until he left office in 1975.
Scott said, “Anytime there was a riot, we got a call from the city of Rochester asking us to come out and help quell it.”
While they were calming the community, at the same time, they were also lighting a fire under Rochester’s major corporations, calling for equal employment opportunities. Rochester was home to Kodak, Bausch and Lomb, General Dynamics, Rochester Products, General Railway Signal and Xerox.
Scott said, “Rochester was called, at that particular time, “Smugtown USA” because it was per capita I understood the richest city in the nation. F.I.G.H.T selected Kodak under Minister Florence to go after because it was the giant. The premise was if you took down the giant, then it would be like dominos falling.”
News10NBC requested a one-on-one interview with Minister Florence. He declined, but did agree to speak by phone. He praised Xerox, which reached out to F.I.G.H.T to help create jobs, but Florence says the experience with Kodak was a different story.
Florence described a two year effort from going to shareholders meetings to going “anywhere Kodak executives went, from golf courses to private meetings.”
In 1967, the F.I.G.H.T organization and Kodak, Rochester's largest employer, finally reached an agreement.
News10NBC asked Minister Scott about progress in the 50 years since the riots. He looks at it through a political lens and shares this story.
Scott said, "Here was a financier to the Democratic Party, who was quite prominent. I won’t mention his name, a millionaire. He once said he would die and go to hell before he saw a "expletive" on City Council."
Scott says, during that man's lifetime, the first African American, Ron Goode, was elected to City Council.
Scott said, “There was a slogan at that time, “burn baby burn” and that was changed to “learn baby learn.”
Scott says with Ron Goode's election to Rochester City Council, others followed like Ruth Scott, David Gantt, who was the first black state assemblyman, William Johnson, who was Rochester’s first black mayor and now current Mayor Lovely Warren, who was Rochester’s first black female mayor.