Lately I’ve been writing about the Rochester rebellion of July 1964. For riots from this era the best primary sources come from the news media. They are not always reliable–sometimes they are plainly inaccurate–so you have to check them against reports and testimony from local organizations and prominent leaders, etc. Even these sources skew toward somewhat elite opinion. Although journalists have a good ear for quotable material from people in the street, they typically reported what fit the narrative. In the 1960s one dominant narrative about the riots was that they were civil rights demonstrations run amok. The most common quote from rioters therefore tended to be a variation on “We Want Freedom.” Another narrative was that the riots were anti-white, i.e. racist. So another popular quote was: “Get Whitey.”
Mainstream news publications like the staid New York Times printed the violence of police officers with matter-of-fact detachment. When NYPD officers shot up the night sky during the Harlem-Brooklyn riots in mid-July–including critically wounding people asking for help and fatally shooting two looters in the back–the Times offered no criticism. Instead, they nudged their readers to see police actions against the backdrop of a dangerous riot led by criminals and hoodlums. In Rochester, the two main local papers–the Times-Union and the Democrat and Chronicle–had their reporters at the scene of the riot on the first night. Reporters followed the action up close for the next two nights. Yet, not one article depicts police actions as unnecessary or excessive. Police are always reasonable; rioters, deranged.
Hence this unbelievable caption from the D and C, on July 26, describing police shooting live ammunition into a public housing project as a reasonable response to people throwing Molotov cocktails from the roof. Luckily, no one was shot.
Rarely, do you get access to the backrooms of city officials. You suspect they were saying some damaging stuff but you have no proof. Which is why the interviews that Chris Christopher conducted for her excellent July ’64 documentary, on the Rochester riot, are priceless. She spoke with former city officials and civil rights leaders. She also spoke with a prominent rioter who later worked for Rochester’s government. The following paragraph (in italics), which comes from chapter four of my dissertation, builds off her amazing work. I’m grateful.
By morning of the second day, July 25, police had made seventy arrests. Eighty-five had been injured. Sixty stores in an eight-block area of the Seventh Ward had been looted and damaged. City officials had spent the night in the backrooms of the Public Safety Building, scrambling to devise a riot plan. The uprising had embarrassed Rochester. The city elders were angry. Connie Mitchell, Seventh Ward Supervisor, and her husband John heard this for themselves when they went to police headquarters to check on their friend, Chief Lombard. Reverend Andrew Gibson and Minister Franklin Florence, two prominent civil rights leaders, joined them. The group walked in as Paul Miller, president of Gannett Company, which owned the Times-Union and Democrat and Chronicle, was scolding Mayor Lamb’s Democratic administration. Miller shouted: “What have you done to my city to let the niggers tear it up?” Next Judge Sydney Davidson ranted about “jigaboos and coons.” Neither man seemed to notice the distinguished black leaders in their presence—one an elected official. They were too angry. Forty years later, Connie Mitchell said, “I think my whole belief in Rochester and this community died during that weekend.” That night the group never met with city officials. They simply went home.