Remembering the Rochester Riots of 1964

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July 24, 2004 marked the 40th anniversary of the Rochester riots, a three-day conflict that altered the course of history in our town. It’s an event that should not be forgotten. That’s why WXXI is proud to present July ’64, an hour-long documentary that offers an historical retrospect rich in context.

On a hot July night, violence erupted at a street dance when a routine arrest took a turn for the worse and ended when the National Guard was called to a northern city for the first time during the civil rights era. “In the collective memory it was always referred to as a riot, but many suggest that it was a social, civil rebellion,” explains July ’64 director Carvin Eison. “July ’64 looks at some of the causal factors that created the episode itself and in the end, shows how these issues resonate in the community today.” The documentary presents some frightening implications – that things haven’t changed much in Rochester in the last 40 years.

It was New York State Assemblyman David Gantt who approached Eison and Chris Christoper, co-owners of ImageWordSound – an independent production company, about producing the documentary. Gantt, who had seen two of Rochester’s oldest community activists, Mildred Johnson and Howard Coles, pass away –knew he had to preserve their memories and the important roles they played in their community. He wasn’t about to let history be forgotten, so he approached Christopher and Eison to produce the film.

Eison and Christopher interviewed twenty-three individuals for the film, including Mayor William Johnson, national political commentator and longtime panelist on PBS McLaughlin Group Jack Germond, 1964 Olympic athlete Trent Jackson, NYS Assemblyman David Gantt, 1964 Third Ward supervisor Constance Mitchell, Dr. Walter Cooper, musicians Gap and Chuck Mangione and many others. “There were so many important interviews,” reflects Eison. “One of my favorites was with Minister Franklin Florence. He carries the DNA of that particular time in history.” Minister Florence was instrumental in working to make things better after the riots and was the founder of the activist group called F.I.G.H.T. (Freedom, Integration, God, Honor, Today), which was formed one year after the riots.

“I’d have to say that one of my favorite interviews was with Jack Germond,” admits Christopher. Germond is a national political commentator today, but worked as a reporter for the Times-Union between 1953 and 1956. He left the paper but was asked by its publisher, Gannett to write the Winds of Change. “He had been on the cutting edge of the issue and yet no one was listening,” she adds. Constance Mitchell was also a favorite of Christopher’s. “She has such knowledge of the time and presented thoughtful analysis.” Mitchell was the first African-American woman to be elected to the Monroe County Board of Supervisors and at one time the highest black female elected official in the country.

When asked what they hope the viewers of the documentary will walk away with after seeing it, Eison says, “I’d like people to use the documentary as a lens to examine where we are now and what could happen if we aren’t cognizant of the issues that still plague our community – housing, education, employment.” Discussion Guide

July ‘64 is a production of ImageWordSound, presented by Independent Television Service (ITVS), National Black Programming Consortium (NBPC) and WXXI-TV with funding provided by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Additional funding provided by the New York State Assembly.