Student Showcase: Rochester, New York and the “Long Hot Summer” of July 1964

harry deVoe probes the historiography of urban civil rights uprisings during the 1960s.

Professor Kramer’s comments:

In the fall of 2019, students in my SUNY Brockport Department of History course “The Sixties in the US and the World” completed interpretive history audio podcasts, experimenting with how to pursue historical analysis and communication in audio rather than written form. The shift of medium sparked many to more articulate and revealing findings. They took risks, and sometimes did not quite pull off their ambitions, but in the end history came alive for many by shifting it to a new mode.

Graduate student Harry DeVoe’s audio podcast does something important and unusual: rather than ignoring the scholarly literature, his narrative emphasizes historiography, which is to say the debates among historians about how to interpret the past. Without getting too bogged down in a comprehensive review of what historians have had to say about urban uprisings during the 1960s, Harry helps us grasp that a disagreement persists about how to understand and explain these important events from the 1960s.

He does so in two ways: first, he raises questions about chronology; and second, he raises questions about naming conventions. Together, these make his podcast exciting for how clearly he introduces sophisticated questions of historiographical debate in a clear and accessible audio narrative.

On the matter of chronology, Harry asks why the outbreaks of violent protest in urban African American enclaves in Northern cities such as Rochester occurred in 1964, typically thought of as a hopeful moment, the beginning of a two-year stretch when civil rights legislation was finally passed into law at the federal level. By shifting the focus from the story of Watts in 1965 and Detroit in 1967 earlier, to Rochester and an almost simultaneous uprising in Harlem in 1964, Harry asks us to rethink the story of an idealistic, integrationist civil rights movement of the early 1960s giving way to a more militant and frustrated one in the mid-to-late 1960s. Maybe that narrative does not hold up, the podcast proposes. Maybe we need to reconsider the rise and fall narrative that predominates.

Harry then brings us into the historiographical debate even more compellingly: what do we even call these events that occurred? Were they “riots” or “rebellions,” disorganized outbreaks driven by frustration or more coherent modes of protest? This has long been a debated issue among historians—and participants themselves. Harry brings us the voices of some of those participants, from a trove of oral history interviews in the Special Collections Library at the University of Rochester. Then he introduces the competing perspectives of two experts, documentary filmmaker Carvin Eison (see his film, July ’64) and US political historian Michael Flamm (see his books, In the Heat of the Summer: The New York Riots of 1964 and the War on Crime and Law and Order: Street Crime, Civil Unrest, and the Crisis of Liberalism in the 1960s). Out of the multiple voices, Harry asks us to ponder the interpretive and historiographical stakes of naming events from the past: what we call these activities that occurred the Northern cities of 1960s America affects how we interpret them.

When the very name of a past event remains disputed, there is something important there to investigate carefully and thoughtfully. In his brisk audio narrative, Harry does just that, skillfully editing multiple voices, stories, and artifacts together to help us think more deeply not only about the history of the civil rights movement itself, but also about the how we continue to debate its legacies and meanings—its profound but disputed relevance—today.

Harry DeVoe, Rochester, New York and the “Long Hot Summer” of July 1964 Audio Podcast.

Storyboard and Script PDF.

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