Things were different back in 1964 when a lack of opportunities and mistreatment of black people in parts of the city resulted in violence.
A lot has changed since then and yet a lot remains the same, more than 100 people learned Thursday during a special showing of “July ’64,” a documentary of a historic three-day riot 50 years ago in two city neighborhoods.
Many of the people in the audience had not even been born yet, as evidenced by a show of hands.
The film, completed in 2004, consists of interviews, archival footage and narration by actor Roscoe Lee Browne of an affluent city with a reputation for high-tech jobs that attracted people from other parts of the country, particularly the South.
From 1950 to 1960, the black population swelled by 300 percent but, as Browne tells it, newcomers found that opportunities were not open to everyone.
Constance Mitchell, a leader in the Rochester civil rights movement, said people knew if they put an application in for a job at Kodak, Bausch + Lomb or Xerox, it would end up in the waste basket. They even jokingly called it “File 13.”
Trent Jackson said the only way into Kodak for a black man was behind a broom.
Author G. Curtis Gerling, in his 1957 book, dubbed Rochester “Smugtown USA,” a place where people had good jobs, knew their children would go to college and saw no need for change.
The residents were not as welcoming to black people as they were to white Europeans, said James Turner, founding director of the Africana Studies & Research Center at Cornell University.
Browne continues painting the pre-riot picture, noting Rochester was one of the last cities in the nation — and certainly New York — to build public housing.
Other interviewees talk about how housing was refused to black people or they were crammed into homes divided into multiple units. One talks about a house that had 16 families living in it. Mitchell said landlords took rooms and threw in a refrigerator and two-plate burners and called them studio apartments. Many were rat infested.
Trent Jackson said he was taught not to be arrested because the police would beat him. He said the police dogs were the No. 1 topic of conversation.
Mayor Frank Lamb, now deceased, acknowledges inner-city people did not like the dogs, but said they served a purpose; send a dog into a situation rather than risk the safety of an officer.
Under all of it existed a quiet rage which came out on the night of July 24, 1964, when police tried to arrest a black man for public intoxication at a Third Ward block party. Rumors spread that a girl had been bitten by one of the dogs and the outrage exploded.
Clashes with police and looting continued for three days until peace was restored after then-Gov. Nelson Rockefeller called in the New York National Guard, marking the first time the National Guard was called out in a Northern city in that era.
By the time it ended, four people had died, more than 350 were injured, almost 1,000 arrested and 204 stores looted or damaged. Three people died when a helicopter crashed on Clarissa Street.
“The heart of the neighborhood was ripped out,” Browne narrates. “The neighborhood would never be the same.”
In the aftermath, people came to realize if the city was going to survive, everybody had to come to the table and start a dialogue.
Yet, the major concerns then and now remain the same: Healthcare, education and jobs. The same communities still have a high rate of unemployment, children in Rochester are living in the highest per-capita rate of poverty and the school system is failing, according to the film.
The film presentation in the Central Jury Room at the Hall of Justice was a collaboration of the Seventh Judicial District, Rochester Black Bar Association and Unite Rochester.
Attendees were welcomed by Chuck G. Perreaud, commissioner of jurors, and attorney Aaron T. Frazier, the RBBA’s vice president of programs and president-elect, who introduced the panel of Carvin Eison, the film’s director; Chris Christopher, producer and writer; and Darryl Porter, an assistant to former Mayors Bob Duffy and Tom Richards, who participated in the rebellion and was interviewed for the film.
Porter said there was very little communication back then between city residents and leaders. He said it is more open now in that young people can meet with the mayor or police chief.
In the movie, he talks about how people were getting tired of all the slum houses and police brutality.
Eison said the community had created a public policy that left some people out, had failing schools and prevented black people from being the best they could. He said Rochester schools still rank last in the nation, while sitting a 10-minute drive from the best.
Someone asked why the speakers were referring to events as a rebellion and not a riot.
Eison said a riot is spontaneous, like what is sometimes seen at soccer games while a rebellion is resistance to authority.
“This is what happens when people are pushed to the limits,” he said.
Porter said people felt like they were hitting their heads against a wall and eventually started hitting other things. He said people got tired of not being able to find a job to support their families and feeling useless.
“That’s when you start changing,” Porter said. “That’s when combustion comes and all hell breaks loose.”
He questioned how long it will take children today in failing schools to get tired.
“When are we going to say enough is enough?” Porter said. “When are we going to get them involved in improving their own lives?”
Eison talked about a new film project involving students from the World of Inquiry and The Harley School working together to have something in common. The project will look at where the kids are in 10 years.
Judge Craig J. Doran, administrative judge of the Seventh Judicial District, told a story about his 16-year-old son questioning why adults use the term diversity, suggesting it emphasizes differences, rather than similarities; that everybody knows everybody is different and that it is more about understanding each other.
Jim Lawrence of Unite Rochester, editorial page editor of the Democrat & Chronicle, looked at the diverse population in the room and said the positive effort everyone is engaged in will continue; that changes can be made with understanding, communication and partnerships.
Several judges also attended, along with politicians, court staff, RBBA President Fatimat Reid, Monroe County District Attorney Sandra Doorley and Sheriff Patrick O’Flynn.