About Reverend Franklin Florence
Franklin Delano Roosevelt Florence was born in the segregated South on August 9th, 1933, in Miami, Florida, to Hozel and Bertha Florence. At age 16, Florence was drawn to the ministry by the influential Church of Christ evangelist Marshall Keeble. Florence attended Nashville Christian Institute from 1948-1952, a black elementary and secondary school affiliated with the Church of Christ, where he met Mary, his future wife. He attended Pepperdine College in Los Angeles (also affiliated with the Church of Christ) for two years before returning to Florida. He was ordained a minister in West Palm Beach, where he became the pastor of the 18th Street Church of Christ. Minister Florence, at the age of 25, was recruited to become the pastor of the Reynolds Street Church of Christ in Rochester, NY, where he moved with his wife and children in 1959.
During this time, Florence emerged as a prominent civil rights leader and advocate of black power. In the early 1960s, Florence developed a friendship with Malcolm X, who spoke in Rochester shortly before his assassination. Florence also arrived in Rochester during widespread discrimination against Black residents. Redlining policies aimed at segregating Black people codified intentional efforts to limit mobility in the city and beyond. Most Black residents lived in the 3rd and 7th wards, overwhelmingly lacking resources, infrastructure, and respect from city officials. These neighborhoods were labeled as slums or uninhabitable, even as people continued building lives and futures there. Rochester's businesses and industries were also notorious for discriminatory employment practices, making it difficult for Black individuals in Rochester to build wealth. The issues around housing, employment, and policing purposely went unanswered by city officials. On July 24th, 1964, Rufus Fairwell, a Black man, was arrested on Joseph Avenue, residents of the 7th ward, who had enough of the dehumanizing tactics of the city, responded.
The Board of Urban Ministry (BUM), a local Protestant clergy, acknowledged the need for more religious involvement around the racial uprising and encouraged black religious leaders to organize their community. The ministers initially invited the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) to come to Rochester to initiate a campaign. SCLC sent delegates to Rochester to appraise the situation and recommended that the Board turn to the Chicago-based Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF) and its "radical" leader Saul Alinsky.
The bid to bring Alinsky to Rochester was met with fierce opposition by many. Amid the controversy, Alinsky sent two of his associates, Ed Chambers and Ron Jones, to the Flower City to begin organizing the Black community. For Alinsky, it was paramount that communities organize themselves. Florence led the steering committee of the newly formed community-based Black activist organization named FIGHT, an acronym for Freedom, Integration, God, Honor, Today (the "I" was changed in 1967 to stand for "Independence"). Florence was formally elected president of FIGHT at the first annual FIGHT convention in June 1965. He held the presidency from 1965-1967 and again in 1968.
Rochester was typical of many northern cities where Black people moved from the south to the north during the period of the Great Migration (ca.1950s-1970s). The rise in population and systemic racism led to social unrest. FIGHT's mission was to address segregation in Rochester and the social problems that resulted from it, such as inadequate housing, education, and employment opportunities. FIGHT insisted that greater black representation exist in other anti-poverty agencies like the city-controlled Action for a Better Community (ABC). While these platforms increased Florence and his organization's recognition locally, when FIGHT took on Rochester's largest employer, the Eastman Kodak Company, in 1966, they stepped into the national limelight.
As part of FIGHT's ongoing effort to expand employment opportunities for Black people, the organization demanded that Kodak implement a job training program and hire 500-600 newly trained Black Rochester residents as part of their workforce. These demands triggered a two-year controversy between FIGHT and Kodak. The FIGHT campaign was a significant attempt to challenge rooted patterns of institutional and economic discrimination in the north during a critical period of transition and reassessment for civil rights nationally. FIGHT pressured Kodak to incorporate inclusive hiring practices to expand the notion of civil rights in the wake of national legislation ending segregation in 1964 and 1965. The campaign is well documented in Florence's papers. Kodak and FIGHT eventually reached an agreement in the summer of 1967, and in the interim, Rochester Jobs Incorporated (RJI) was formed with Florence as vice president. RJI, created by a group of interdenominational clergymen in March 1967, aimed to connect people with training and jobs. Although it did not diffuse the FIGHT-Kodak controversy, RJI successfully placed over 700 people in positions within eight months of its creation.
Bernard Gifford succeeded Florence as president of FIGHT in 1969; however, he remained a social and political activist in Rochester and beyond. Serving as an observer and advocate for prisoners during the Attica uprising in 1971. Along with his continued participation in FIGHT, Florence was involved with the Rochester anti-poverty agency Action for Better Community (ABC), the Model Cities Program, the Rochester Northeast Development Corporation (RNED), and two low- to moderate-income housing initiatives, FIGHT Village and FIGHT Square.
ABC was funded primarily through the Federal Economic Opportunity Act of 1964, which allocated money through the state. During its early years, Florence and FIGHT accused ABC of failing to represent Rochester's poorest citizens. By 1966, Minister Florence was on the Board of Directors as well as participating in two of ABC's committees. Over the years, FIGHT and ABC would come to work together on various campaigns.
The Model Cities Program was a federally funded operation to revive selected neighborhoods in various US cities. In 1968 Rochester had three proposed Model Cities projects. FIGHT announced it would only support the Model Cities program if it had control of the planning process. FIGHT elected a Model Cities Board that they felt represented people with low incomes in the three city wards targeted by the program.
RNED arose from the desire for meaningful citizen participation in the Model Cities Program. To ensure an equal partnership between the City of Rochester and the Model Neighborhood Council, 36 voting members of the council formed RNED as an advocacy group for the council. RNED was incorporated on August 6th, 1969. Minister Florence became its executive director the following year. As well as addressing housing issues, RNED became involved in various education campaigns, including the federally funded Talent Search program.
Minister Florence was instrumental in founding the Central Church of Christ in 1970. The church is active today under the leadership of his son Rev. Clifford Florence. Franklin Florence passed away in February 2023, and his legacy will live on in the people and the community he served and through the positive changes he made through his powerful beliefs and unrelenting voice, anchored in faith and in justice.