When Hurricane Katrina ripped the roof off of New Orleans, the world was riveted by images of the city's primarily black and poor residents left to fend for themselves. Shocked by suddenly visible abject poverty and subhuman conditions, voices cried out against the injustice. But such conditions—poverty, lack of opportunity and poor education—and the violence they spawned are nothing new.
JULY ’64 tells the story of a historic three-day race riot that erupted in two African American neighborhoods in the northern, mid-sized city of Rochester, New York. On the night of July 24, 1964, frustration and resentment brought on by institutional racism, overcrowding, lack of job opportunity and police dog attacks exploded in racial violence that brought Rochester to its knees. Directed by Carvin Eison and produced by Chris Christopher, JULY '64 combines historic archival footage, news reports and interviews with witnesses and participants to dig deeply into the causes and effects of the historic disturbance.
In the 1950s, millions of African Americans from the Deep South packed their belongings and headed north in search of a better life. The city of Rochester, New York, with a progressive social justice history and a reputation for manufacturing jobs, drew people like a magnet. Between 1950 and 1960, Rochester’s black population swelled by 300 percent. The city—dubbed “Smugtown USA” by a local journalist—groaned under the weight of unprecedented growth. City fathers ignored newcomers’ housing and education needs. The only openings for blacks at companies like Kodak and Bauch and Lomb, were “behind a broom.”
On the night of July 24, 1964, what community leader and minister Franklin Florence calls the African American community’s “quiet rage” exploded into violence. What began as a routine arrest at a street dance in a predominantly black neighborhood in downtown Rochester ended with the National Guard being called to a northern city for the first time during the era of the Civil Rights Movement. The uprising, which later came to be known as the Rochester Riot, sparked a series of summertime riots in small and mid-sized northern cities. As in many of those cities, the three days of unrest and civil disobedience in Rochester provoked actions and sentiments that reverberate to this day.
The score for JULY ‘64 features a never-before-released live recording of Duke Ellington performing "Night Creature" with the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra in August 1964, less than two weeks after the riots. Filmmakers Eison and Christopher discovered the recording in the archives of the University of Rochester's Eastman School of Music Sibley Library after learning that Ellington's 1964 summer tour had included a stop in Rochester.
With narration by Emmy Award-winning and Tony Award-nominated actor Roscoe Lee Browne, JULY '64 reveals new information about the Rochester Riots and provokes the question of why race, and the entitlement it does or does not carry, remains a potentially destructive issue today.
Read the filmmaker Q&A >>
View a list of the people interviewed in JULY '64 >>
Photos courtesy of the University of Rochester Rare Books and Special Collections
and the Democrat & Chronicle