- Strike the Hammer: The Black Freedom Struggle in Rochester, New York, 1940–1970 by Laura Warren Hill
The civil rights movement as it played out at the local level in Rochester, New York, is the focus of Laura Warren Hill’s book, Strike the Hammer: The Black Freedom Struggle in Rochester, New York, 1940–1970. The spark to this fire that led to the civil rights movement was the influx of southern African Americans to the north after World War II. As part of the Great Migration, many people came to the area to work on fruit farms and eventually drifted into the city and stayed. The first two chapters of this study discuss the early efforts of organizing and advancing the ever-growing African American community within Rochester. Upon arrival in Rochester, most migrants faced urban segregation (housing for Blacks was available only in the 3rd and 7th wards of the city), poor paying jobs, police brutality, and a local government that did little to improve conditions. Hill’s book charts local efforts and the leaders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the Nation of Islam, the Young Turks, and the local churches that worked with various degrees of success to combat the economic, political, and social discrimination facing the African American community.
The third chapter discusses the most dramatic catalyst for civil rights in Rochester—the 1964 uprising. In July 1964, the uprising began with an overly aggressive police response [End Page 187] to an intoxicated African American gentleman at a neighborhood dance party. From the perspective of the Black community, the police response was, as usual, overly aggressive, and unnecessarily harsh. The African American community present at the time collectively retaliated against the police by throwing rocks and garbage at them. Two days later, when the open warfare ended, Rochester was left with more than 350 people injured (35 were police officers), more than 900 African Americans arrested, over 50 city blocks destroyed, 204 stores looted or damaged, and property damage in general estimated at more than $1 million. Mainstream media reported the disturbance as just another race riot during a long, hot summer of political and social unrest in cities across the country. However, diving deeper, the author reframes the motivations of the participants and provides a new interpretation. Hill argues that Rochester’s African American residents used the uprising as an opportunity to voice discontent over local conditions that had remained unchanged—both social and economic. For example, many of the white-owned stores within the Black community were looted and destroyed. However, stores that treated the local community with dignity and respect by not overcharging for inferior goods and services were spared. The long-term outcome of the July 1964 event was the building of coalitions and organizations to address the conditions of Black Rochester: FIGHT (Freedom, Integration, God, Honor, and Today), Action for a Better Community (ABC), and the National Urban League of Rochester (NUL).
The author spends most of the remainder of the book focusing on FIGHT and the complexities of organizing at the local level during a time in the civil rights movement when leaders were unsure of whether nonviolent or militant actions were the correct approach and how much white involvement was appropriate. FIGHT’s major goals were to improve housing, facilitate urban renewal, and improve employment opportunities. FIGHT’s membership firmly believed that the African American citizens of Rochester needed to be involved in the decision-making processes that affected their community. Hill posits that the organization’s success had much to do with the leadership of Mildred Johnson and Minister Franklin Florence, both of whom were able to harness the power of local community members to address the systemic racism and discrimination that plagued Rochester’s African American community. The group’s highest-profile accomplishment, according to the author, was the fight with the ever-successful Eastman...