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Minister Franklin Florence, local civil rights icon, dies

Minister Franklin Florence.png
Ryan Williamson
CITY file photo
Minister Franklin Florence is seen at FIGHT Village apartments on Ward Street in this 2018 file photo.

Longtime Rochester pastor, community organizer and civil rights icon Minister Franklin Florence has died.

Florence passed away Wednesday morning. He was 89.

He was known as authentic, unwavering in his principles, never one to measure or adjust his words to pacify the room he was in at the time.

"He didn't believe in wrong type of compromise," Minister Clifford Florence Sr. said of his father. "He was not a compromising person. It's either this, or it's that."

The late Franklin Delano Roosevelt Florence rose to prominence after the July 1964 uprising here, sparked when police intervened in a block party but fueled by broader social issues. Hundreds were injured, hundreds more were arrested, and dozens of stores were looted or burned.

Minister Clifford Florence and Bishop Willie Davis.png
Jeremy Moule
Minister Clifford Florence, left, and Bishop Willie Davis, executive assistant to Minister Franklin Florence, are seen on Feb. 1, 2023, with some photographs of Minister Franklin Florence and other memorabilia associated with the civil rights icon's life.

Florence was the first president of the Black activist group FIGHT (Freedom, Independence, God, Honor, Today) and took on Eastman Kodak Co. over discriminatory hiring practices, creating the foundation for a more diverse corporate workforce today.

But much of his focus was in the streets. FIGHT rallied people on housing, policing, schools — all issues that remain in the forefront.

"This is in the DNA of America," Florence told CITY in 2018. "It's going to be difficult if ever for this country in the majority sense to face up to the country's greatest sin."

Which is why Florence wasn’t one to tout his resumé. To the contrary, he minimized his own actions, pointing to the challenges still facing people of color — from the classroom to the workplace, and most every measure of social justice and equality.

"The story that must be told about Minister Florence must be the truth," his son said. "And it must not be massaged to make many in the community to feel comfortable, and to make people feel that we have arrived. To be honest, if FIGHT was around today, what do you think my dad would be doing? Very same thing that he had already done."

In a statement, Mayor Malik Evans called Florence “a giant among giants in Rochester’s proud legacy of social justice and civil rights.”

Florence moved to Rochester with his family from South Florida in 1959. He is memorialized in a mural at East High School and at a heritage site at Baden Park on Upper Falls Boulevard.

"My father was able to champion in a very unpopular time to get people who were in power to break down and do what was right — particularly for Black people, but for all people," Florence said. "And I just need to say that I hope that white folks in this community won't forget that the doors that he knocked down, that was supposed to help the poorest among us also help them to prosper as well as they have.

"And they can't forget that he was their conscience, to let them know that to whom much is given, much is expected in return."

Brian Sharp is WXXI's business and development reporter. He has been covering Rochester since 2005, working most of that time as an investigative reporter with the Democrat and Chronicle. His journalism career spans nearly three decades.
Jeremy Moule is a deputy editor with WXXI News. He also covers Monroe County.