In keeping with our Presidential visits to Rochester series on June 18th, 1971 President Richard Nixon spoke at the Landmark Hotel in Pittsford.
The 1971 visit was not Nixon’s first to Rochester. In a charged moment during his campaign against Kennedy, on November 1st, 1960 — only one week before election day — Vice President Nixon spoke at a campaign rally at the War Memorial Auditorium to a full house.
In 1960, New York was still considered “in play,” having voted Eisenhower/Nixon in 1952 and 1956. In his speech, Nixon promised to win Monroe County. He did, but lost New York by 5 points — and also the closest presidential election in U.S history.
In Six Crises (1962), Nixon mentions the visit in his account of the frenzied last week of the campaign in which he lost the popular vote by .017%.
Nixon’s 1971 visit did coincide with another important moment in Rochester history. In 1971 — the first and only time — the RCSD Board mandated compulsory busing as a means to achieve racial balance in the schools. As seen below, the year was marked by racial violence.
Two days before Nixon’s remarks to eastern media executives attending a briefing on domestic policy at the old Landmark Hotel in Pittsford, all schools were closed after fights and other disturbances at Charlotte, Madison, and West High Schools. Three days after Nixon’s visit, as described by Lou Buttino and Mark Hare in The Remaking of a City, Rochester, New York 1964-1984, “a confrontation between about one hundred White students and an equal number of Black students resulted in a chair-throwing fight in the cafeteria at East High in which ten students were injured.”
While Nixon probably did not know about the troubles in the city schools, he did address issues of school desegregation and race.
Although Nixon got the year wrong and gave no details — perhaps some strategic vagueness on his part to downplay the events — he did mention the 1964 riots:
Let me touch briefly on one other area that I think it is appropriate to mention in Rochester, because in this city I recall 4 or 5 years ago there were some difficult problems in the field of race relations.
While cautious in his comments, Nixon did not shy away from the issue of school segregation as a problem:
It is interesting and ironic to note that the section of the country [the South] that has the most difficult problem has made the most progress in the field of race relations over the past 3 years. For example, 38 percent of all black students in the South go to majority white schools. Twenty-eight percent of all black students in the North go to majority white schools. There has been a doubling — I mean a tripling — of the number in the South in the past year. There has been no change whatever in the North in this number over these past 3 years.
The very numbers that propelled then RCSD Superintendent Herman R. Goldberg to try various voluntary — and then mandatory — approaches to integration.
As seen in Herbert S. Parmet’s Richard Nixon and His America (1989), Nixon opposed school busing but, at the time of his Rochester visit, said he would uphold the “law of the land.”
Within the context of the RCSD, one of Nixon’s comments was prophetic when he said:
In the field of school desegregation, in the field of fair housing and all the rest, we shall enforce the law. But I recall in my first year in law school, the first day, the professor in contracts started the course before we opened the case books, and he said, “Gentlemen, before you study all these cases I want to say one thing. A contract is only as good as the will of the parties to keep it.”
Ultimately, for various reasons extending beyond the violence, many in both white and black communities did not like mandatory busing. Busing never gained adequate popular support. In 1972 the experiment ended.
NOTE: while almost all the political players from 1971 are gone, one is still going strong. In remarks on drug use, Nixon said:
As Congressman Rangel, who is the Congressman, as you know, from New York, very eloquently said when I met with the Black Caucus, this [drug abuse], he thought, was the major problem in his particular district that we could deal with.
Reflecting on the RCSD’s most tumultuous year, 1971
September 15, 2013
Over the past year, Rochesterians have engaged in serious debates on how to bridge racial divides, as seen in the RMSC’s groundbreaking exhibit on race and laudable initiatives such as RocUnite.
As the dialogue moves forward, it is worthwhile to look back at another time when Rochester tried to draw the races together.
In the 60′s and 70′s, Rochester, like other Northeast cities, faced deep racial inequality and widespread segregation. One avenue of change was school integration. To advocates, school integration was more than equal education, but one element in a racially just society.
Beginning about 1963, spearheaded by Superintendent Herman R. Goldberg, the RCSD tried various voluntary approaches to integration. Ultimately, they were only partially successful at best. Finally, in 1971 the Board mandated compulsory busing as a means to achieve racial balance in the schools.
Alas, the plan failed and was short lived. The white population reacted with hostility and often undisguised racial antipathy. At the same time, many in the black community rejected busing in preference to keeping students in their own neighborhood schools. By Fall 1972, the schools had largely reverted to their traditional racial makeups. It seemed that Rochester was not yet ready to cross those racial divides together.
Most tragically, 1971 saw outbursts of violence throughout the schools as students were transferred between predominantly white and predominantly black schools (as seen in the news clippings).
I am too young to recall 1971. But for those of you old enough, what do you remember? What are your lasting impressions about the racial confrontations in the schools? How did 1971 shape your attitudes towards integrated schools and communities? Is Rochester more or less divided 40 years later?
Also, below is a comprehensive account of the disturbances taken from Lou Buttino and Mark Hare’s indispensable history of the time period, The Remaking of a City, Rochester, New York 1964-1984.
Violence in the schools had been on the rise since the spring of 1970. Scattered fights, and occasional melees, plagued the schools in June that year.
In June 1971, the violence intensified. All schools were closed on June 16, 1971, after fights and other disturbances at Charlotte, Madison, and West High Schools. A confrontation between about one hundred White students and an equal number of Black students resulted in a chair-throwing fight in the cafeteria at East High on June 21 in which ten students were injured. False fire alarms and scattered fights disrupted classes for two days at East and for several days at Monroe High School.
Then, following the smooth opening of schools in September 1971, violence between the races again broke out. On October 1, 1971, twenty students were injured in massive disturbances at Charlotte and Franklin High Schools. Franklin closed for a day, then reopened. Charlotte remained open.
Fights, false alarms, and bottle-and-rock throwing confrontations between gangs of Blacks and Whites occurred sporadically for a week. By October 31, police had made 34 arrests resulting from investigations of 354 reports of school-related crimes since the start of the year. One-third of the reports involved assault. Most of the violence arose from the newly created junior high schools at Charlotte, Monroe, and Franklin. The most violent of the incidents occurred on June 19, 1972, when twenty-five students and two teachers were beaten during a rampage by youth at Charlotte Junior High which cause about $9,000 in property damage. Thirty students were charge in the incident and suspended.”
Today, integration in the RCSD is not really an issue as it demographically unfeasible. Nonetheless, we may learn much from the tumultuous year of 1971 as we continue our journey towards a united Rochester.