The night of Friday, July 24th, 1964 started off normally enough in Rochester New York, stiflingly hot and humid; but by the next morning no one would look at race relations in the North the same again. July '64 takes a penetrating look at the underlying causes of the riots or urban insurrections that swept through Black communities like wildfires that summer and in years since.
To many whites it must have seemed odd that it started in Rochester. To them Rochester was the ideal small city; it had low unemployment and thousands of high paying, skilled manufacturing jobs in "clean" companies like Kodak, Bausch and Lomb and the future Xerox. But this characteristic also led to Rochester being referred to as "smugtown." Blacks emigrated from the South looking for these jobs only to be bitterly disappointed to find that the only positions open to them were as janitors and service personnel not skilled technicians. They were confined to ghettos of rundown, rat-ridden housing; Rochester was the last large city in New York State to build any public housing. Police brutality was a constant aggravation. Rochester's Black neighborhood was a keg of dynamite waiting for a match.
It came that night with the arrest of a drunken Black man at a block party - or perhaps it was the rumor that a young Black girl had been bitten by a police dog. The streets filled with young people throwing bricks, stones and Molotov cocktails at the police and trashing stores along Joseph Avenue, the main artery of the Black neighborhood. The film interviews several participants after 40 years and while they express sadness at having hurt store owners with whom they had had friendly relations none of them felt regret at giving vent to their frustration about the situation in Rochester. These are the real life emotions dramatized in Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing.
With a second night of urban disturbances a state of emergency was declared, and Gov. Nelson Rockefeller sent 450 National Guard troops into Rochester. This was the first time the National Guard had been used in a Civil Rights struggle in the North. Over 1000 Blacks mostly between the ages of 20 and 40 and mostly employed were arrested that weekend. The ultimate causes of the uprising, according to Rochester's present Black mayor, were health, education and jobs.
These problems persist today and in many case have even intensified rather than abated in the 40 intervening years. Only 25% of Black pupils graduate from Rochester's high schools. James Turner, Professor at Cornell University refers to cities like Rochester as the "crisis of the Black politician." Once Blacks win political power whites move out of a city to the suburbs or the Sunbelt, and industry runs away or overseas taking the tax base with them. Today Rochester is just a shadow of the prosperous industrial city it was in 1964.
Langston Hughes famously wrote, "What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun? Or does it fester like a sore and then run? Maybe it just sags like a heavy load. Or does it explode?" Rochester was only the first instance of the burning inner city, an ember which has flared up in cities like Miami and Los Angeles ever since. It is not a question of whether it will happen again, simply what incident will trigger the next conflagration, spark the next urban combustion. These are cries of inchoate rage and frustration because the country has yet to develop the concrete policies to address the vital needs of its Black citizens ? health, education and jobs. July '64 can further these discussions in Black Studies, Urban Studies, American History, Social Problems and Sociology classes, as well as in community groups, so that more Rochesters will not be necessary.
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore--
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over--
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?
by Langston Hughes
1. Northern Promise
2. The Neighborhood
3. Employment Discrimination
4. Squalid Housing
5. Police Brutality
6. Friday Night, July 24, 1964
7. Saturday Night, July 25, 1964
8. Sunday and the Aftermath
9. Lessons Learned, Lessons Lost