Eight days ago, Rochester was unexpectedly thrown into the national spotlight with the revelation that Daniel Prude, a Black man in the throes of an apparent psychotic breakdown, had died in March after Rochester police took him into custody.
Prude joined other Black men and women who have died at the hands of police in U.S. cities, deaths that have energized protests under the loose banner of Black Lives Matter. Rochester had been roiled by demonstrations and rallies in support of those who had died elsewhere. Now, the focus of protests was a homegrown outrage.
Events moved quickly in Rochester after the Sept. 2 press conference at which Joe Prude revealed the circumstances of his brother’s death. Protestors swiftly assembled at the Public Safety Building and clashed with police who tried to beat them back, spraying the crowd with pepper balls. Each night since then, organized protests have drawn thousands to downtown streets; violent confrontations flared repeatedly until Sunday, when community elders began to serve as a buffer between police and demonstrators.
Responses to BLM protests have ranged across a wide spectrum. One extreme paints the movement’s protests as lawless gatherings of anarchic thugs and police as the protectors of life and property. An opposite pole sees police as a blunt instrument whose sole purpose is to protect and preserve racism that pervades virtually every American institution.
Some find themselves at points between those two extremes where it might be possible to reach across the divide. Whether or even how we might find a way to do so is far from clear.
Five days before the Prude family’s news conference, I attended a local rally called by the United Christian Leadership Ministry of Western New York Inc. to mark the 57th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
Organized by the civil rights notables A. Phillip Randolph and Bayard Rustin, the March on Washington brought together a coalition of Black civil rights activists and white organized labor to call for an end to segregation and economic inequality.
The march drew 200,000 to 300,000 people to Washington. Though criticized at the time by some Blacks—Malcolm X called it the “Farce on Washington” and Stokely Carmichael (who later changed his name to Kwame Ture) said it was “only a sanitized, middle-class version of the real black movement”—it is now seen by many as a seminal event, responsible for moving Congress to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Fair Housing Act of 1965.
The march’s commemoration in Rochester turned out to be less a celebration of its success than a lament for its unfulfilled promise.
Forecasts had called for thunder showers. But as the event began, the sun shone on the parking lot of the First Church of God on Clarissa Street in Corn Hill, where metal folding chairs had been set up at socially distanced intervals to accommodate attendees. A few uniformed Rochester police officers moved among a crowd of 50 or 60, offering smiling greetings and socially distant elbow bumps as attendees schmoozed and took seats.
UCLM founder and president Rev. Lewis Stewart, a spry, smartly dressed septuagenarian preacher, keynoted the rally. Looking out over the masked, racially mixed audience, he began to speak.
“It was a hot August day,” Stewart said, recalling his own attendance at the D.C. march. “I know because I was there. I was 17.”
He continued: “We have not elevated the celebration nor the commemoration of this march as we should have. We forgot it and placed it in the dust bin of history. The only thing we remember from that occasion is Dr. King’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech.”
The very end of King’s 1963 speech is most often remembered, a stirring coda before a wildly cheering crowd in which King intoned: “When we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, Black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: ‘Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!’”
But earlier King had greeted the crowd, noting that “some of you have come fresh from narrow jail cells. Some of you have come from areas where your quest, a quest for freedom, left you battered by the storms of persecution and staggered by the winds of police brutality. You have been the veterans of creative suffering.”
Marking the 1963 event nearly six decades on, Stewart said not much had changed.
“Fifty-seven years later,” he told those assembled at the march’s commemoration, “Black and brown people and this nation are caught up in a national crisis. Fifty-seven years later, systemic racism is still a metastatic cancer in our midst. Fifty-seven years later, Black lives are still belittled and devalued. Fifty-seven years later, we are still fighting for jobs, better economic opportunities, affordable housing and universal health care. Fifty-seven years later, many are still mired in poverty and see no way out. Fifty-seven years later, our youth are being scored by gun violence. Fifty-seven years later, we are still fighting against the police dehumanizing us, committing acts of barbarity and murdering us. Fifty-seven years later, we are being herded like cattle in the dungeons of mass incarceration.”
Following Stewart, Pastor John Walker of the Christian Friendship Baptist Church continued the theme of King’s dream as a dream too long deferred.
Walker traced the beginning of the American civil rights movement not as many do to the 1955 Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott led by King but to the first African American allowed to join a Major League Baseball team—Jackie Robinson’s 1947 debut as a Brooklyn Dodger.
Despite Robinson’s struggles and those of King, Rosa Parks and many others, “(the) civil rights movement died in 1968 with the death of Martin Luther King Jr,” Walker asserted. “It’s dead and has yet to be resuscitated. There is no such thing now as a civil rights movement. The 1964 and 1965 legislation … all of that was based on political decisions (and) was met with white retaliation and defiance. They did not speak to the issue of poverty and its subsequent burden.”
The organizers of the 1963 march wanted the event to showcase diversity. Speakers included American Jewish Congress president Rabbi Joachim Prinz and United Auto Workers president Walter Reuther. Odetta and Marian Anderson sang; so did Joan Baez and Bob Dylan.
At the commemoration rally, Rep. Joe Morelle was one of two non-minority local politicians slated to speak. Brighton Town Supervisor Bill Moehle was on the program but failed to appear when emcee Rev. Joyce Newton called him.
Thanking Stewart for “advice, counsel and spiritual guidance offered over the years of our friendship,” Morelle continued the theme of King’s dream deferred.
“Today,” he said, “we should be together in celebration. Together, we should be rejoicing. Today, we should be sharing stories of how on a hot August day nearly 60 years ago Dr. King’s uplifting words in what he called ‘the symbolic shadow of the Great Emancipator’ inspired transformational change that ended racial prejudice and bigotry in America. Today, we should be offering prayers of gratitude that we have achieved equity and justice for all of our citizens. Today, we should be congratulating ourselves on a job well done.
“Instead, today we meet with the heaviest of hearts. Today, in a hospital bed in Kenosha, Wisc., lies Jacob Blake. Six weeks ago, we buried George Floyd. Six months ago, we buried Breonna Taylor. A month before that, Ahmaud Arbery.
“And the list goes on,” Morelle said, unaware that two and a half months earlier the list had grown to include Daniel Prude, whose encounter with Rochester police took place only a few blocks from where Morelle was speaking.
A nonviolent stand
In a monologue presaging the anger that would seethe in Rochester less than a week later, Genesee Valley Civil Liberties Union director Iman Abid demanded defunding of police. As had Morelle and others, she invoked the names of Jacob Blake, Breonna Taylor and others who “died at the hands of the state.”
But Abid added a qualification. “These are not names for young white kids to post,” she said, writing off police concern for public safety as concern only for “white people’s safety.”
In a barb that seemed aimed at Morelle, Abid called out “politicians, including some here, who have taken distance from the issues.” Of such politicians, she demanded, “stop taking micro-steps.”
Speaking against gun violence, Brother Kenneth Muhammad of the Nation of Islam offered a selective prescription.
“We need to take a stand on police violence,” he said. “(Police) have wanted us to obey the law. They have the audacity to ask us to apologize. We have a right to be angry. I’m not going to ask our young people not to be violent until the police stop being violent.”
Stewart was to have closed the rally with an address entitled “The Covenant and Where Do We Go From Here.” But the predicted cloud burst finally came. It lasted only minutes, but by the time the sky cleared, attendees had scattered.
Five days later, Stewart called a news conference at which he planned to speak about Prude’s death. It was slated to begin at 10 a.m. on the steps of the Rochester City Hall. When Stewart arrived, he found a group of BLM protestors who had scheduled their own event and had been holding forth to a gaggle of TV news crews for a half hour. Assessing the scene, Stewart paused in mock consternation and not unkindly said, “I’m supposed to be having a news conference.”
I pulled him aside and asked: “Do you still believe King’s message of nonviolence was achievable?”
He answered with no hesitation: “Yes, it’s still very possible. It is the only moral force, the only way to combat racism.” But what did he make of Minister Kenneth Muhammed’s refusal to condemn protestors’ violent acts unless the police first ceased theirs? Stewart thought a moment before replying: “The Nation of Islam is not violent.” He excused himself and strode toward the City Hall steps.
As his supporters set up a podium in the midst of the ongoing BLM news conference, Stewart beckoned the BLM protestors to stay and stand with him. Most did. The TV cameras kept rolling.
A practiced preacher, Stewart gave a stirring 12-minute speech. He condemned Warren’s and Singletary’s “coverup.” He called for charges to be dropped against protestors who had been arrested a day before at Warren’s press briefing. “Some are standing right here,” he said, gesturing behind him. “Somebody say amen,” Stewart called out. The crowd around him called back, crying loudly in unison. “Amen!”
“I am a civil rights man and I am a Black Lives Matter man,” Stewart declared. He called for Warren and Singletary to explain their silence at a community meeting scheduled for 6 p.m. that evening at the Clarissa Street church where the March on Washington commemoration had been held five days earlier.
The meeting did not go smoothly. The mayor and the police chief showed up, but so did BLM protestors who swelled the crowd and had little interest in hearing explanations or excuses Warren or Singletary might offer. Nor were they in a mood to heed Stewart’s calls for order.
Singletary slipped out and aides hustled Warren away. A large group of protestors left to range the streets in mostly nonviolent actions that would end much later with a tense confrontation with riot-gear clad police, who moved them along with pepper balls.
In a 1966 “60 Minutes” interview, King told Mike Wallace, “I will never change in my basic idea that nonviolence is the most potent weapon available to the Negro in his struggle for freedom and justice. Employment of violent tactics in the civil rights struggle would be both impractical and immoral.”
Wallace pressed further, asking King to comment on “an increasingly vocal minority who disagree totally with your tactics.” He referred to a rising Black Power movement whose supporters sought the same goals as King but emphasized pride in Black identity and did not share King’s faith in nonviolence. The Black Panthers, for example, organized free breakfasts for Black children but also brandished rifles, promising to use the weapons to protect themselves if necessary.
Though he believed those advocating such tactics to be but a small minority, King conceded: “The cry of Black power is at bottom a reaction to the reluctance of white power to make the kind of changes necessary to make justice a reality. I think we’ve got to see that a riot is the language of the unheard. What is it that America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the economic plight of the Negro poor has worsened over the last few years.”
King said on another occasion that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” The line became a bellwether of hope for many. It was not entirely new but had been distilled by King from a sermon delivered by the abolitionist minister Theodore Parker and collected in an 1853 book.
Some 60 years after King uttered the line, President Barack Obama cited the King quote often and liked it so much that he had it woven into a rug he kept in the Oval Office.
Perhaps, but now one begins to wonder: How long have we got?
Will Astor is Rochester Beacon senior writer.