Franklin Florence on Rochester and racism: Little has changed 


It's been more than 50 years since Minister Franklin Florence and FIGHT, the black activist organization he helped create, took on Kodak over its lack of hiring diversity. Protests against the iconic film company, Rochester's largest employer at the time, eventually led to more jobs for people of color. And the upheaval in Rochester's predominantly white corporate culture catapulted Florence into national news as a civil rights leader.

Florence, now in his mid-80's, isn't in the spotlight as he once was. And during a recent interview with CITY, he was almost dismissive as he talked about his work, as well as FIGHT and its scuffle with Kodak – important pieces of his legacy.

But Florence is still speaking out, and he says little has changed since his early years as an activist. African Americans have obviously made some economic gains since the days of FIGHT, he said. But many of those improvements are superficial, "artificial progress," he said.

"I don't think anybody says that things are not better in 2018 than they were in the 1950's and 60's," Florence said. "There's been slight improvement, but look what's going on today, man. There's no difference."

If things were really better, Florence said, Rochester's schools wouldn't be even more segregated now they were when he first arrived in Rochester. The issues people of color face in Rochester reflect what's happened around the country. And they haven't changed much; America remains locked in its struggle with racism, Florence said.

"This is in the DNA of America," Florence said. "It's going to be difficult if ever for this country in the majority sense to face up to the country's greatest sin."

Florence (second from right) and Raymond Scott (left) were arrested during a 2008 protest at the County Office Building. The issue: the County Legislature’s politicization of the public defender selection process. - PHOTO BY JEREMY MOULE
  • Florence (second from right) and Raymond Scott (left) were arrested during a 2008 protest at the County Office Building. The issue: the County Legislature’s politicization of the public defender selection process.

Florence was born and raised in a religious household in Miami's Overtown, an area of north Miami once referred to as Colored Town. His father and grandfather were both ministers. Florence had a chance to meet many of the great black preachers of that era, because his mother always had a spare bedroom prepared for them. She called it the "prophet room," he said.

"At that time, our folk had a pocket full of money, but they couldn't live in any hotels," Florence said. "So they had to live in homes belonging to the members of the churches where they visited."

Miami was rife with racism at the time, there were many places blacks weren't welcome in the late 1930's and 40's. But during the holidays, Florence's mother would take him and his siblings on a bus to Sears to shop and see the decorations. The outings were kind of a family tradition.

But one holiday, things didn't go well. When the bus they were riding came to a stop at one point, a young, impatient white man shoved his mother out the door. The incident is still a reminder of the casual cruelty blacks have experienced over many years, Florence said.

In 1959, when Florence was in his early 20's, he moved with his wife and young family from South Florida to Rochester to become pastor of the Reynolds Street Church of Christ. But Rochester wasn't any friendlier to blacks than Florida and the Deep South he experienced as a child.

"It was like living in Mississippi at the time or Alabama," Florence said. "No difference."

He tells of Rochester police officers going into black neighborhoods in the Joseph Avenue and South Clinton Avenue areas on weekends to harass and intimidate people. It would start on Friday night and continue through Sunday, sometimes interrupting church services.

"You could count on police brutalizing African Americans," said Florence. "They became so bold they brought out dogs."

As an undercurrent of anger grew, some white community leaders were worried.

"Prior to the riots, a group of us met with the powers that be and told them about how explosive the feelings in the black community were," Florence said. "We told them it wouldn't be long before something happened, and the next week the lid blew off."

While many people have looked for a single event that sparked the city's riots in 1964, Franklin says there wasn't one. It was instead a culmination of abuse inflicted on black people over a long period that led to the riots and the organizing that followed, he said.

"It was the brutality," Florence said. "That was the thing. That's why I say Kodak was not our first endeavor. It was the economic situation of having this community from Front Street, Joseph Avenue, Clinton Avenue, and all around here infested with dilapidated housing. It was absentee landlords gorging on abhorrent rents they were charging our people for deplorable housing."

"The stores here only had food you wouldn't serve a dog selling at high prices, all the while denying access to employment," Florence said. "It was all of this. Our people were crying out for relief."

But Rochester's white and black communities had grown increasingly wary of one another.

"There was a sense of withdrawing from the white community, and whites of every stripe were held under suspicion," Florence said. "There was no trust. There was this sense that we had gone through this period of talking and cajoling with whites and answering all of their questions. But things for our people were getting worse."

Some relief came with the help of Saul Alinsky, head of Chicago-based Industrial Area Foundation, and often referred to as the father of modern community organizing. Following the riots, a group of local clergy urged black religious leaders to mobilize Rochester's black community with a call to action. The ministers first turned to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to come to Rochester to help with the organizing, but the SCLC directed them to Alinsky.

To call Alinsky a polarizing figure is an understatement. It's highly unlikely that many city leaders anywhere in the country were eager to welcome Alinsky. He was considered a radical, and the idea of bringing him to Rochester infuriated many people in both the white and black communities.

"There were a lot of rumors about Alinksy," Florence said. In addition, "some felt that nobody knows the problems of this community better than the people who are here."

Alinsky didn't just show up in Rochester one day, Florence said.

"He said he would not come without an official invitation so that everybody in the community, black and white, would understand that he is working in the black community alone," Florence said.

The community had to collect a thousand signatures and include them in a formal invitation to Alinsky's organization, Industrial Area Foundation.

"We didn't see at the time, but that was our first lesson in organizing," Florence said. "That became the foundation for the FIGHT organization."

click to enlarge Still involved in both local and national issues, Florence led a February rally against the Trump administration’s policies. - PHOTO BY RENÉE HEININGER
  • Still involved in both local and national issues, Florence led a February rally against the Trump administration’s policies.

Florence became the first president of FIGHT in 1965. The acronym originally stood for "Freedom, Integration, God, Honor, Today." But "Integration" was later changed to "Independence," reflecting a major shift in attitudes in the black community.

Florence himself had been a member of a group that called itself "the Integrated Five." The multi-racial group's five members were from different areas of the city, and they tried to address Rochester's racial inequities through dialogue and outreach, he said.

But white flight from the city was well underway by then, and a sincere effort at integration had never taken root, Florence said.

What developed instead was a growing sense of black power, he said.

"We changed the name from 'Integration' because people were saying to us at the time, 'You're really fighting for our independence,'" Florence said. "Once we decided as an organization to get something done, that's what we did. It was no compromising, because we were done with that."

FIGHT, with Alinsky's mentoring, was firm about having Rochester's black community speak for itself. It was not up to white liberals to determine what was best for the community, Florence said.

"I say this without prejudice, but looking back in the 60's, the role of the white liberal was to be the boss," Florence said. "That's what they wanted, to be the boss. It seemed to be in their nature. They never thought that God put brains in one group – you know, black people."

Florence maintains to this day that many of the problems African Americans confront are the result of misguide liberals preaching integration, knowing that most whites are against it.

"They feel that blacks are inadequate and they can't decide what's best for themselves," he said.

"Even many in the city's African American community at the time believed that blacks had to become part of the corporate board room; that's where FIGHT needed to go," he says. But Florence believed that FIGHT needed to be on the street, not in board rooms behind closed doors.

And FIGHT took its protests to the street using a variety of tactics. The organization could rapidly summon large numbers of supporters to protest, showing up and disrupting school board and City Council meetings. They protested police abuse and their use of dogs to intimidate residents.

High on FIGHT's list of issues was housing.

"These absentee landlords would divide single-family homes into two, three, four, and five units," Florence said. "They were crowding our people into these places like cattle. So on Sundays, we would call all the pastors together, and we would go out to Pittsford and Greece and flood their neighborhoods with flyers saying, 'Did you know your neighbor is a slum lord?'"

Sometimes the landlords would be leaving their churches when FIGHT members appeared.

"It was interesting, because their neighbors didn't know this about them," says Florence.

In 1966, FIGHT launched what became a highly controversial, two-year battle with Kodak demanding that the company create a job-training program that would lead to hiring newly trained black workers. Kodak did eventually train and hire roughly 700 people from the black community.

But there were multiple barriers getting there, drawing national attention. Many people in Rochester's white community weren't convinced that the issue of low black employment in the city's Big Three was a real problem. Unemployment in the city at the time was well below 2 percent, leading many white people to think blacks simply didn't want jobs and didn't need special training programs.

And executives at Kodak were concerned that giving into Florence's demands could mean losing control of their hiring capabilities. They wanted to avoid setting a precedent of hiring based on racial quotas.

There was also sharp criticism of Florence's hardball tactics, which included showing up at Kodak headquarters with a group of FIGHT supporters and demanding to meet with senior management and attending and disrupting a shareholders' meeting.

Florence also made public comments that many in the white community saw as veiled threats of racial violence if certain demands weren't met. It was barely two years after rioting occurred in Rochester and other cities, making the comments seem particularly provocative.

And it wasn't just the white community that had become critical of Florence and FIGHT's approach. The city's black community was divided.

It was absolutely true that none of Rochester's Big Three companies had many black and Latinos employees at that time, but they did have a few. At Kodak, for example, some blacks held posts as scientists and senior-level administrators.

And some in the black community worried that Florence's tactics further isolated Rochester's black community and make it harder for people of color to get jobs in those companies.

Some, for example, felt FIGHT should focus its attention on education and the city school district arguing that education was they only proven path to advancement.

People in the black community who voiced disagreement with Florence risked being called Uncle Toms and Oreos, his critics say. But Florence argues that FIGHT was trying to address multiple issues concerning racial inequality. One shouldn't preclude the other. And FIGHT's tactics got people's attention, he says. Everybody likes to say that they want to see change, he says, but it rarely happens on its own.

Franklin at FIGHT Village apartments on Ward Street. - PHOTO BY RYAN WILLIAMSON
  • Franklin at FIGHT Village apartments on Ward Street.

Though Florence tends to downplay his role in Rochester and his contribution to the civil rights movement, there's no question he has left an indelible impression. Even though he was only briefly president of FIGHT (and the organization no longer exists), Florence was deeply involved with the Rochester anti-poverty agency Action for a Better Community and the Northeast Area Development Corporation among many other organizations and events.

Florence remains tuned into local and national politics. Earlier this year, he took to the streets again, this time leading a downtown rally against the Trump administration.

He rails against the Republican Party and leaders like Senate Leader Mitch McConnell for his treatment of President Obama.

"They raised hell about Obama, you know," Florence says. "They just met a black man that was smart enough to know how to work within the norms of society."

He worried for Obama's safety and feared that he might share the same fate as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X. He had become close friends with Malcolm and spoke to him shortly before his assassination.

Locally, Florence is particularly concerned with the Rochester school board and the district's long history of low performance. He, like many people, blames the board for not insuring that the district hire teachers of color. The district's teachers, mostly white suburban women, come into the city for a job, Florence said, but they're disconnected from the culture and children they see every day.

And he's no fan of Adam Urbanski, the longtime president of the Rochester teachers union.

"It's time for black teachers to organize themselves independently of this unit," Florence said. "It's not serving their community."

Florence has also kept an eye on local activism, including the local Black Lives Matter movement, noting that many of the group's concerns are the same ones FIGHT was facing. He rattles off names, places, and events from 40 to 50 years ago that fostered mistrust of police in Rochester's black community. Among them: Rufus Fairwell, a 28-year old black man who worked at a local gas station. When police stopped and questioned him as he was closing the station for the night, he refused to show them identification. They arrested him, and in the process, Fairwell suffered two broken vertebrae. Those types of stories are still making the news today, Florence said.

"We have quite a few young men and women today, and they're fighting the good fight," Florence said. They need to continue to push back against police brutality, because the issue is just as relevant today, he says.

"One of the things about our organization is we gave it teeth," Florence said. "When people won't come around, you have to make it uncomfortable for them. But you also have to be willing to pay the price."

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