Posts Tagged ‘Laura Warren Hill’

Book note: Strike the Hammer

September 15, 2021

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.

(more…)