RIP Minister Florence, and a word about 1964

Earlie this month one of the true protagonists in Rochester’s civil rights history died. Franklin Florence was the first president of FIGHT in 1965 and led it through an audacious protest against the Eastman Kodak Co., then the absolute epicenter of the white power structure in Rochester. He was 89 years old.

I wrote an obituary at the D&C, and also wrote about him in my book. He’s covered in more depth in Laura Warren Hill’s book, Strike the Hammer, which I recommend. She and I both made much use of his personal papers, which are at the University of Rochester and open to the public. And there’s a 30-minute documentary about him by Carvin Eison and Chris Christopher called Drum Major for Justice.

I was doing a book talk last week and I got a question that comes up from time to time, and that resonated given the news about Minister Florence. Someone asked me about the uprising of 1964, and whether it was a major driver of white flight.

The answer is no, in my opinion. First of all, a white family in mid-20th century Rochester may have felt a ‘push’ to leave to the extent it believed its neighborhood, or city, was deteriorating. But there was a much stronger ‘pull’ from the suburbs in terms of availability of low-cost housing, with incentives to go with it. Some particular urban ill, including July 1964, may have weighed on their mind — but it wouldn’t have been as likely to result in a change in address unless there was a significant opportunity available elsewhere.

Second, there are many other cities that did not experience uprisings of the kind Rochester did, and they still saw white flight. Other cities had much worse uprisings — Rochester’s was a minor one, nationally speaking — and saw the same pattern.

But those are just theories. Here’s some Census data showing the distribution of the white population from 1930 to 1990.

1964 is marked in red. Can you detect a change in the trend before and after?

Here’s another look at the same data. Again, the vertical red line marks 1964.

Leaders like Minister Florence (or his friend and inspiration, Malcolm X) were often criticized for pushing too aggressively for change. Instead they were urged to wait for the good works already underway — this initiative, this coalition, this political campaign — to take their course.

These charts show that advice to be nonsense, at least regarding the hope that white people would remain in the city under certain ideal conditions. They were already leaving, and would continue to do so regardless of any inducement or compromise.

Much is made of the way Black Power figures like Florence rejected the idea of integration. But there’s nuance to that point. Recall that when FIGHT was founded in 1965, with Florence as its president, the ‘I’ stood for ‘Integration.’ And even after he personally lost faith in RCSD’s attempts at desegregation, he still recognized the dangers of a segregated education system.

In 1966 the U.S. Civil Rights Commission held hearings on education in several cities, including Syracuse and Rochester. With characteristic panache, Florence testified that “the stench of white colonialism and paternalism drowns out the odor given off by the Flower City.”

About education and segregation, he said:

“If you’re black in Rochester in 1966, your kids are stuck in educational isolation; black schools get blacker; quality education declines.

Racial isolation simply means a slowed-down curriculum; a school in the old section of town, staffed by people who don’t live, pray, shop or recreate there; teachers who wished they were in the white suburbs; inferior facilities in the area; … and your children are treated like slum kids. …

We have fought City Hall for housing that poor people can afford to be placed on scattered sites throughout Rochester and the suburbs. … They don’t have any guts for that kind of approach. As timid, frightened people always do, they pass the buck. Segregation exists because people and institutions (which are simply organized people) want it.”

Minister Florence was a complex man with a complex legacy. But as militant as he was, he didn’t add new distance to the racial divide in Rochester any more than the 1964 uprising did. It pre-dated them and now has survived them both.

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