Among the 893 people who were arrested during the Rochester riots of 1964, according to the city’s statistics, the vast majority were either unemployed or unskilled workers.
Those 804 people gave a sense of the Rochester that was below the radar screen of community leaders when the riots broke out.
“It was a great shock to people who were very confident in the benevolent nature of the community. Clearly, generous benevolence was not sufficient to deal with the problems,” said Chris Lindley, who was then teaching history at the University of Rochester and later served as deputy mayor.
The events of July 1964 affected the city in many ways and at many levels, spawning a host of social service agencies — including Action for a Better Community and the Urban League of Rochester — but also changed attitudes on race.
“It made people aware of the racial divide,” said Brenda King, 68, of Pittsford whose father, Sam Sniderman owned a hardware store bearing his name on Joseph.
With the establishment of the FIGHT organization in June 1965, the national spotlight focused once again on Rochester. Inspired by the biblical phrase, “Fight the good fight of faith, lay hold on eternal light,” the acronym initially stood for Freedom, Integration, God, Honor, Today.
The confrontational tone of FIGHT was reflected in Minister Franklin Florence’s speech at the first FIGHT convention that elected him president of the group. “For those who trust people, it is the dawn of a new generation of hope,” Florence said. “For those who fear people, it is rightly cause for fear and trembling.”
Kodak at the time had begun to make changes, said retired public affairs officer Charlie Fitzgibbon. But the company nevertheless became a target because it was the city’s largest employer.
“There was significant community interest in bringing about an opportunity for change,” he said, explaining that was a motivating factor for Kodak as well as the workforce needs of a growing company.
He blamed Saul Alinsky, the Chicago-based activist known for his innovative grass-roots organizing for social change. Alinsky was recruited by Rochester activists to help start FIGHT.
“Alinsky and the people who exploited the situation were looking for attention,” he said, but Kodak had undertaken or was developing a lot of the programs that community activists sought. “We were working on it.”
Kodak became the focus of FIGHT protests. Florence brought groups of unemployed African-Americans for job interviews, said Dorothy Hall, who worked as a receptionist in Kodak’s employment office at the time and is now executive director of the Plymouth-Exchange Neighborhood Association.
“Minister Florence was pushing for jobs — jobs, jobs, jobs,” Hall said.
A Kodak assistant vice president, John Mulder, reached an agreement with FIGHT that would have resulted in the organization sending 600 people to Kodak for possible hire, with Mulder saying it was Kodak’s goal to hire them. But Kodak subsequently said the agreement was “unauthorized.”
That led to busloads of protesters going to Kodak’s annual meeting in April 1967 in Flemington, New Jersey — with such signs as “Kodak Snaps the Shutter on Negroes.”
Ultimately, Kodak and FIGHT reached an accord in June 1967, in which Louis Eilers, the new Kodak president, sent Florence a telegram, recognizing FIGHT as “a broad-based community organization” and saying that the newly created Rochester Jobs Inc. “promises to be an effective way of providing job opportunities for the hard-core unemployed.”
According to the most recent data Kodak was able to provide, African-Americans represent 9.4 percent of Kodak’s U.S. workforce as of July 2013, while Hispanics make up 8 percent.