“Back in my little town,” as the song goes, there is “nothing but the dead and dying.” Well, if you want to take the northeast section of Rochester, New York, once a neighborhood of plain, but well-kept, houses, as a little town of working class folks, many of them Displaced Persons, you could be singing this song.
Rochester was once a place of hope for DP’s who had spent years in unsanitary barracks of Austrian camps, working as day laborers on farms. Often, they spent more time in the same kind of work when they came to America, in tobacco or sugar cane fields. They were then grateful for jobs at the meat packing plant or the clothing factory. Some of them rose to supervisory positions at Kodak. They had been advised to keep their noses to the grindstone, stay out of politics; many of them never stopped looking over their shoulders, as they went to work and church. They bought houses in neighborhoods bordering on black neighborhoods or in black neighborhoods.
But then along came the rioters. These people, who had escaped communist regimes, now faced violence in their own American neighborhoods.
Their children carried a new fear with them, too. All they knew was that the Italian barber’s shop was broken into and that the patient, elderly Jewish corner store owner was roughed up by thugs. In school, they were told to have “understanding” for the “root causes” of such violence among the “underprivileged.” During elections they were given information about Democratic candidates, which all their teachers supported.
But if you’re like me and want to understand what happened when you were a kid, you go back to the records. You look up some of the old newspaper articles that you were too young to understand. You read about sniper fire from rooftops in Milwaukee. But among all the rhetoric coming from everything from letters to the editor claiming that such riots are ways to justifiably put the “white race on trial” to reports on Dr. Spock’s rationalizations for the violence, you learn that in the summer of 1967 Governor George Romney called for federal troops to Detroit to stop the rioters. It took them 23 hours to get there.
A voice of sanity (then and now called the “token conservative”) on the editorial pages of the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle, David Lawrence, pointed out in an August 8, 1967, column, “Why Troops to Alabama and Not to Detroit?”, that troops were readily sent to protect civil rights demonstrators in Alabama, yet were held back as inner cities burned.