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Revisiting Rochester’s civil rights history: The Rev. Franklin Florence

Malcolm X 1.jpg
Max Schulte
Local civil rights leaders the Rev. Franklin Florence and Constance Mitchell flank Malcolm X in a mural painted on the side of East High School. The mural is drawn from a photograph of Malcolm X's visit to Rochester in 1965, only days before he was slain.

In the 1960s, as the civil rights movement grew stronger and stronger, people fought for change across the nation, including Rochester.

One of the local leaders in that fight was the Rev. Franklin Florence, and a recently completed mural at East High School pays tribute to his and others’ efforts.

The mural is a replica of a 1963 photograph of Florence, Malcolm X and Constance Mitchell, another local civil rights icon. Ephraim Gebre is the artist behind it.

“It’s such an interesting and powerful photo, you know?” Gebre said.

Gebre said he didn’t know about Mitchell or Florence when he was going to school.

“I didn’t start to learn about them until the mural was brought to my attention,” he said.

Mitchell was the first African American woman to be elected to the Monroe County Legislature. She died in 2018.

Her daughter, Constance Mitchell-Jefferson, said the mural is a welcome reminder of what her mom was able to accomplish.

Mitchell-Jefferson was very young when her mother served on what was then called the Monroe County’s Board of Supervisors, but she remembers what their family endured.

Mitchell-Jefferson often had to stay with relatives due to constant threats being made against the family. She recalls it being a point of tension for her parents.

“My father was like, ‘You know, Connie, I am sick and tired of having to pull our child up out of the bed and pick up and uproot our lives every night,” Mitchell-Jefferson said. “And my mother said, ‘I know, John, but the one time we don't could be the time when they put a bomb in the house.’”

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Max Schulte
Minister Clifford Florence and Rochester artist Ephraim Gebre speak as Constance Mitchell-Jefferson and East High principal Shaun Nelms hug at the mural dedication on May 19, 2022.

She said her mother and Malcolm X were “kindred spirits.” They even share a birthday. Malcolm X was also very close with Florence.

Mitchell-Jefferson said she’s glad the mural includes Florence.

“Everyone always utilizes the picture of mom and Malcolm,” she said. “They don’t include Minister Florence in it, and if it was not for him, we would not have any diversity in corporate America because he was the one that started it right here in Rochester.”

She’s right – in a lot of replications of this iconic photo, Florence is cut out. And people outside Rochester might not know the impact he had on the civil rights movement.

Today, Florence is 85 years old, and he lives a quiet life. But as a younger man, he was a relentless advocate for civil rights.

One year after that photo was taken, Florence became the first president of a Black activist group called F.I.G.H.T., which stands for Freedom, Independence, God, Honor, Today.

He and F.I.G.H.T. are credited with changing workforce diversity not just here but across the nation. One of their biggest accomplishments was taking on the Eastman Kodak Co. At the time, Kodak mainly hired white employees for roles as engineers and scientists, while Black employees were kept in menial positions.

With the support of a controversial organizer from Chicago named Saul Alinksy, Florence and F.I.G.H.T. sued Kodak, resulting in a legal battle that lasted for two years. They also engaged in some unconventional tactics like crashing a stakeholder’s meeting in New Jersey.

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Max Schulte
Rochester artist Ephraim Gebre paints a mural on the side of East High School depicting local civil rights leaders Constance Mitchell and the Rev. Franklin Florence with Malcolm X.

It worked. Shortly after that protest, Kodak started offering training programs for people of color, and more than 700 hundred people were eventually employed by the company.

Gloria Winston said Florence was a mentor to her when she was a teenager in the 1960s, growing up in Rochester’s Third Ward. She said he was very persuasive and demanded attention.

“When he spoke, you just listen,” she said. “You just seemed compelled to listen to what he was saying.”

The reverend’s son, Clifford Florence, said remnants of his father’s legacy of economic development and affordable housing can still be seen today.

But he said many young people don't know about the things that his father did.

“One of the failures we had as a community is that we don't celebrate our own history, especially Black history,” said Florence.

As a pastor and a community organizer, his father was able to influence many different people.

Ephraim Gebre 1.jpg
Max Schulte
Rochester artist Ephraim Gebre paints the mural of local civil rights leaders Constance Mitchell and the Rev. Franklin Florence with Malcolm X on the side of East High School.

“He had a relationship with working with gang and gang leaders, and he was able to communicate in a way to make them think of other aspirations that they can shoot for,” Clifford Florence said.

Winston said the reverend was like a father to many young people in the community.

“He was a just a giant, in my opinion,” Winston said. “The way he stood in front of the public, the impressive way that he handled young folks, the way that people his age respected him.”

Many of the tactics Florence used were called “radical” at the time, but they helped to eventually bring change in the aftermath of the 1964 Rochester riots, his son said.

“He was responsible for the first Black factory up on Sullivan Street. FIGHT Village and then there was FIGHT Square,” he said.

The FIGHT organization started a manufacturing firm called FIGHTON, which created more jobs, and FIGHT Square and FIGHT Village apartments created more affordable housing.

Still, Florence wasn't immune to criticism, even from members of his own community.

“He didn’t back down from controversy. He wasn’t afraid of the threats that I’m sure were being thrown at him,” Winston said.

Clifford Florence says despite the criticism, in the end, companies like Xerox and Bausch and Lomb became more diverse as well, making his father’s efforts worth the fight.

“The tactics that he used to kick doors down for poor Black people also helped white people. It helped Hispanic people,” he said. “It helped everybody.”

April Franklin is an occasional local host of WXXI's Weekend Edition.