Book note: Strike the Hammer

STRIKE THE HAMMER: The Black Freedom Struggle in Rochester, New York, 1940-1970 by Laura Warren Hill (2021)

I’ve lived in Rochester, N.Y., since 1974, more than half my life, and I thought I knew its history well.  But I learned important things from Laura Warren Hill’s Strike the Hammer that I never knew.

Most people who live here know that there was a two-day uprising in black neighborhoods in the city in 1964, leading to a new awareness by the city’s white leadership of racism and the need to do something about it.

I call the violence an uprising rather than a riot because it was organized, which is not to say it was pre-planned.  Churches, community institutions, black-owned businesses and businesses owned by whites with good relationships with the community were spared; police stations and other white-owned businesses were targeted.

I knew the uprising was triggered by police arrest of a drunken young man who disrupted a neighborhood street dance, when a false rumor spread that a police dog had bitten a young girl.

But I didn’t know of the outrages that put the community on hair-trigger.  In 1962, Rochester police beat a respectable young black man, not accused of any crime, so badly that he suffered two broken vertebrae and was confined to a wheelchair.

Early in 1963, police invaded a Nation of Islam mosque with police dogs while a religious service was in progress because of an anonymous tip about someone with a gun.  A few weeks later they arrested a young man for a traffic offense and beat him so badly he was hospitalized for 21 days.

Another thing I hadn’t known is that Malcolm X, then a leader of the Nation of Islam, was a frequent visitor to Rochester and had a warm relationship with Minister Franklin Florence, Constance Mitchell, Dr. Walter Cooper and other black civil rights activists.

The national NAACP forbid its local chapters to engage in joint actions with Malcolm X or the Nation of Islam because of its bizarre anti-white theology and antisemitism.  Black NAACP members in Rochester simply disregarded these instructions.

After the uprising, the Rochester Area Council of Churches, which was mainly led by literal white people, offered famed community organizer Saul Alinsky’s Industrial Areas Foundation a $100,000, two-year contract to advise Rochester’s black leaders.

Alinsky agreed, but only on condition that the invitation come from the black community itself.  Hill quoted Minister Florence’s recollection of Alinsky:

One thing that stayed with me, with Saul, he said, “Never mind my being invited here by the Council of Churches.  I refuse to come to Rochester unless you invite me.”  But here’s…the genius of Saul and organizing—he said, “You would have to get three thousand names of people in your neighborhood…before I come in with you.”…

“Now—” We’d raised with him, “Well, who’s paying you?”  He said, “That wouldn’t be your business, but I’ll tell you.”  He said, “Our contract is with the Council of Churches to come in and offer you a service, provided you invite me.”

I said, “Well, what about their money?”  He said, “Well, I’m going to take their money, but I’m not taking their money to do their bidding.  I’m taking their money because they won’t give it to you.”

The clincher for Florence was that Malcolm X vouched for Alinsky.  He said Alinsky was possibly the best community organizer in the USA, and black people should always be willing to learn new skills, no matter who the teacher.

The new organization was called FIGHT.  The initials stood for Freedom, Integration, God, Honor—Now!  I hadn’t known until now just how it was organized.

On Alinsky’s advice, FIGHT was not a membership organization.  It was a federation of community organizations—neighborhood associations, informal youth clubs, churches, barbershops, whoever wanted to join.  The member organizations elected a Delegates Council, which chose a steering committee in annual elections.  There also were vice presidents representing wards.

The advantage was that FIGHT by its structure was plugged into the black community and represented it, provided the community was united.  Alinsky and his white deputy, Ed Chambers, were merely advisers.  They exercised no authority.

The next chapter of the story is better known.  FIGHT decided that the priority for the black community was jobs, and its target would be Eastman Kodak Co., which was Rochester’s largest employer by far, but employed hardly any black people except in menial jobs.

Kodak was a paternalistic company both the good and bad sense.  It put a lot of money back into the community, but its executives did not tolerate challenges to their authority.  They were strongly anti-union, and were not willing to negotiate with FIGHT or any other community group as equals.

Minister Florence requested, then demanded that Kodak start a program for hiring and training of the hard-core unemployed.  FIGHT would assist by recruiting and counseling.  A tentative agreement to hire and train 600 people over a 24-month period was negotiated, then repudiated by Kodak CEO Louis Eilers.

FIGHT and the Council of Churches began a public relations campaign against Kodak.  National church organizations condemned Kodak.  The national press reported on Kodak’s and Rochester’s racial problems. 

One effective tactic was to ask all churches and other organizations with Kodak stock in their endowment funds to give proxies to FIGHT to vote that stock at Kodak’s annual stockholders’ meetings.  This didn’t in itself change anything, but was embarrassing to Kodak.  Shareholder activism is common now, but was new back then.

All of this was damaging to the company’s image, and also to the city of Rochester’s.  Company executives and community leaders sought to repair the damage by creating jobs for African-Americans, or at least appearing to do so.

Local government created Action for a Better Community to serve as a conduit for federal funds from Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society programs.  It did a lot of good work in promoting early childhood education, creating neighborhood service centers for child care, tutoring and health services, and the like.

Kodak persuaded the Rochester Area Chamber of Commerce to create a Rochester Business Opportunities Council to teach entrepreneurial skills and promote black-owned businesses.  

The Council of Churches persuaded local employers, including Kodak, to form an organization called Rochester Jobs Inc., whose purpose was to provide training for skilled jobs the employers needed to fill.

The purpose of both ABC and RBOC was to steal FIGHT’s thunder.  These organizations were established in the same spirit as Kodak’s offering job security, profit-sharing bonuses and generous benefits in order to keep out labor organizers.  Neither they nor RJI consulted FIGHT.  None of them offered community control or self-determination.

One big issue was whether the best way to help black Rochesterians was to bring them into the mainstream of industrial corporate America, or to build up black-owned businesses with roots in the black community.

Joseph Wilson, CEO of Xerox Corp., which was Rochester’s second largest employer, was a liberal Democrat.  He polished Xerox’s image at the expense of Kodak’s by embracing FIGHT.  Xerox created a job training program for the hard core unemployed called Step Up which, unlike others, offered a guaranteed job for those who completed the course.

Xerox helped FIGHT create a corporation called Fighton, to make industrial vacuum cleaners, low-voltage electrical transformers and metal stampings, all needed by local industry.  FIGHT also backed two public housing projects, Fight Square and Fight Village, which were completed in the 1970s.

All three enterprises fit Minister Franklin Florence’s vision of a community development corporation, which plowed its profits back into the community rather than distributing them to stockholders.

Fighton ran into financial trouble and was sold in 1976 to a black businessman, Matt Augustine, who renamed it Eltrex Industries.  It flourished for many years and employed 350 people at its peak in the 1990s.   Since then it had to sell assets and transfer employees to Cannon Industries, another minority-owned business.  Evidently it is closed now.

FIGHT wilted in the 1970s and closed its doors in 1978.  Fight Village still exists, but Fight Square was repossessed and sold.

It was able to flourish in the 1960s because Kodak, Xerox and other manufacturers flourished and had resources with which to respond to FIGHT’s challenge.  Kodak and Xerox flourished because they were semi-monopolistic businesses in a booming economy.  As time went on, they encountered tougher competition, and economic growth slowed down.  Corporate social responsibility took a back seat to economic survival.

Minister Franklin Florence suffered the same fate as many insurgent leaders.  With success, FIGHT lost much of its fight.  The qualities of a successful fighter are not the same as the qualities of a successful administrator.

The struggle in Rochester accomplished good things for the African-American community.  Rochester now has a black mayor, a black chief of police and a black school superintendent.

But all the conditions that FIGHT fought still remain.  Last year’s Black Lives Matter protests (they really were mostly peaceful) showed both the level of discontent in the black community here and the potential for solidarity with progressive white people.

Extreme inequality, poverty and even police brutality are problems that go beyond racism.  Even if hidden white racial prejudice and racial discrimination were to magically disappear, these problems would not automatically go away.  The struggle continues.

For those who live here in Rochester, my friend Melissa M. Parrish is conducting a weekly reading and discussion program on Strike the Hammer.  It runs from Saturday, Sept. 18 through Oct.9 and will be at the Rundel Public Library from 12:30 to 2 p.m.

LINKS

‘Black Capitalism’ Promised a Better Life for Everyone – What Happened? by Michael Corkery for The New York Times.

New book examines Kodak, FIGHT and the black freedom struggle in Rochester by Justin Murphy for the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle.

[Update 9/16/2021]. The concluding paragraphs were changed.

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