Remembering July 1964

Fifty years ago, our country was in the throes of a great struggle for racial equality. The Civil Rights Act of 1964, signed by President Johnson on July 2, was a landmark piece of legislation that protected voting rights and outlawed discrimination and segregation on the grounds of race, color, religion, and national origin. Yet even as the law attempted to level the playing field, widespread bigotry and violence from hate groups like the Ku Klux Klan persisted in keeping African Americans largely separate and decidedly unequal from their white counterparts.

We tend to think of the civil rights movement as playing out primarily in the South, where efforts to combat discriminatory Jim Crow policies manifested in mass interracial projects like the 1964 voter registration drive in Mississippi known as Freedom Summer. But racial injustice was pervasive and the North was not immune. Throughout the mid- to late-1960s, a spate of urban uprisings erupted throughout the country, challenging institutional inequality and belying the notion that racial strife was strictly a southern phenomenon.

As those who lived here at the time surely remember, and subsequent generations have perhaps not yet learned, a rather vivid episode in the history of racial conflict happened right here in Rochester in July 1964. Referred to historically as a riot and more recently understood as a rebellion, the unrest that took place in Rochester fifty years ago this month revealed the city’s underlying racial tensions. The incident was profound, as was its impact, with news of the three-day/two-night maelstrom traveling nationwide and even into Canada.

This month marks the 50th anniversary of the Rochester riots/rebellion. Rochesterians are taking the occasion to pause and reflect upon the events of the summer of 1964 and to take stock of where we stand today. The point is not to blame or point fingers, but to understand: what happened, and why; what has changed, and what work remains to be done?

RaceRebellion logoThese questions and others will be explored in a series of programs and an exhibit co-sponsored by the Central Library of Rochester and Monroe County, the Friends & Foundation of the Rochester Public Library, and the Office of the City Historian. “Remembering the Race Riots/Rebellion of 1964” will run from July 15th to the 25th and will feature talks with scholars, activists, and local observers as well as film screenings and discussions about the documentary July ’64. For details, see our poster, RaceRebellion1964_Pstr_F, and our program, RaceRebellion1964_flyer_F.

In addition to the events taking place at the Central Library, the City Historian’s office is producing a four-part series of articles for the Democrat & Chronicle’s weekly “Retrofitting Rochester” column that will run throughout this month. The column appears every Monday in the RocRoots section of the newspaper and online at http://media.democratandchronicle.com/retrofitting-rochester/.

For a list of other related events taking place throughout the city, please visit the City’s website, http://www.cityofrochester.gov/july64/, as well as the events calendar on the D&C’s website, http://events.democratandchronicle.com/july-1964/.

Come out and join the conversation!

~Michelle Finn, Deputy City Historian

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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Will “historians” really compare the Boston Tea Party or Bunker Hill to the Rochester riots and adjudge them to all be “rebellions”? A rebellion is usually thought of as acts aimed at destroying or taking over the position of an established authority such as a government, governor, president or person in charge. What was the Rochester rebellion, like so many others in the inner cities aimed at or resulted in? Other than burning down their own neighborhood what was really gained except for the looters? Calling this a rebellion is just a lame attempt to glamorize for this generation the senseless violence of the riot.

    • Mr. Ochs,
      You raise an interesting point, one that received a great deal of consideration at the various events held throughout the community in recognition of the 50th anniversary of the 1964 race riots. How do we explain the actions that transpired that July, and can any one term adequately encapsulate what most understand to have been a very complex and layered issue? As all good historians know, the past is not (forgive the pun) black and white. We seek nuance not to glamorize, but to better understand what happened and—more importantly—why. In incorporating the word “rebellion” into our examination of the July ’64 events, we were not attempting to supplant the idea that rioting took place. Rather, our goal was to raise awareness that there are other dimensions to the story. It is a conversation worth having; thank you for participating in it.


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