By Tracie Isaac
A moment in Rochester’s civil rights history has been captured in a mural celebrating the legacies of local civil rights leaders Constance Mitchell and Minister Franklin D. Florence with the great Malcolm X.
The mural was unveiled on the front facade of East High School located at 1801 E. Main Street on May 19, also the birthdays of Constance Mitchell who would be 94 and Malcolm X, 96.
“Artists paint the stories of our lives and our city is grateful for the Constance Mitchell, Minister Franklin D. Florence and Malcolm X Mural Committee for their dedication to this project,” said Rochester Mayor Malik D. Evans. “Artist Ephraim Gebre captured the essence of the iconic civil rights leaders that students of East High and citizens will view near and far.”
Joined by the families of Mitchell and Minister Franklin and Gebre, reflections about their connection and honors to the civil rights leaders were given by Evans, City Councilmember LaShay Harris, Monroe County Legislature President Sabrina LaMar and East High Superintendent Dr. Shaun Nelms.
Evans said his connection to Malcom X’s legacy is through his father who worked closely with Mitchell and assisted with bringing Malcolm X to Rochester. He said his father was involved in the black liberation struggle.
“He wanted to name me Malcolm, but his twin brother beat him to it. So he named me after Malcolm X. After Malcolm X took his pilgrimage to Mecca, he changed his name to el-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz. And that’s how I got the name Malik,” he said.
For the past four years Constance Mitchell-Jeffries, daughter of Mitchell, says she’s worked behind the scenes to get the Civil Rights movement work of her mother recognized.
She was moved to tears seeing her mother honored. “I am so honored to be here today to see this mural come to life. When the mural was done of John Lewis, I remember saying, ‘Hmm, that’s nice. That should be my mom on that wall.’ I have worked behind the scenes trying to get recognition for my mom repeatedly throughout her life. But in particular in these last four years, since she’s been gone. So to see this mural today, it’s very touching for me.”
The 1965 photo of the three was taken in Rochester after Malcolm X spoke at Corn Hill Methodist Church, just five-days before Malcolm’s death.
Standing on the shoulders of Mitchell are Councilmember LaShay Harris, who was sworn in by the late Constance Mitchell and Monroe County Legislature President Sabrina LaMar who credits Mitchell with making it possible for her to hold the position as the current President of the Monroe County Legislature.
Evans echoed the sentiment, “I would say to Dr. Sabrina Lamar, there’d be no Dr. Sabrina Lamar, if there wasn’t a Constance Mitchell. There would have been no Lovely Warren, if there was not a Constance Mitchell, there would not have been no Ruth Scott. If there wasn’t a Constance Mitchell. This is someone that blazed a trail.”
Minister Clifford Florence, son of Minister Franklin, the founder and the first president of the civil rights group F.I.G.H.T. , spoke on behalf of his father who could not be present. He shared a brief but direct message from his father to the community, “There is still work to be done starting in the home with the Black family.”
“Fight like Franklin, be articulate like Malcolm with the passion of Clifford,” is a quote and tattoo worn by Clianda Florence-Yarde, grand-daughter of Minister Franklin D. Florence.
Mitchell and Florence were trailblazers who fought for educational opportunities, improved living and working conditions and higher wages for people of color.
Commissioned to paint the mural was Gebre originally from Eritrea, in Eastern Africa. He is also one of the artists who created the 3,000-square-foot mural of the late Congressman John Lewis located in downtown Rochester. Gebre was part of the city’s youth mural arts program Roc Paint Division. His style is considered “spiritual” and captures the life-like energy of the subjects.
Gebre says the project was about sharing the stories of such great historical figures. “That’s where we find our individual strength and our ideas of what’s possible. And, our collective strength as well, it’s from the accomplishments and indomitable spirits of the people that are above us right now.”
The mural project began in 2015 after an article appeard that was written by local journalist Erica Bryant on Malcom X’s public Rochester last speech, before his assassination. Bryant shared in an interview that social media played a role in bringing the project to life.
“After I wrote the article, the article reappeared on social media a few years later and the artist Ephraim Gebre was tagged to view the article. He posted a comment that he would be interested in painting the mural,” said Bryant.
Interested parties contacted Bryant, who volunteered to support the mural project by fundraising. Bryant was successful with fundraising efforts resulting in more than 250 people contributing to make the project possible.
Major donors include the City of Rochester, Rochester Area Community Foundation, Spiritus Christi Church, ROC Freedom Riders, Michelle Daniels and the Daniels Family Foundation.
“Now in the wake of what happened in Buffalo, we have these larger than life figures to remind us,” Bryant said. “…give us strength. And remind us that we have them to lean on, as we try to go forward and advance the values that they fought for.”