by Velma and Norman Hill
On August 28th, 1960, Velma Murphy, then the 21-year-old president of Chicago’s South Side NAACP Youth Council, led — with the aid of her activist boyfriend, Norman Hill, 27 — a small group of young people in the first “wade-in” protest at Rainbow Beach. This Chicago beach along Lake Michigan was, like most of the city’s public beaches, racially segregated by practice, but not by law. Velma and Norman Hill, married for 55 years and living in the Chelsea section of New York City, have completed their memoir about their lives in the civil rights and organized labor movements. Here is an excerpt from their upcoming book, “Climbing Up the Rough Side of the Mountain: Our Lifelong Struggle to Further Democracy in America.”
We invited Norman Hill, that guy I met on the Woolworth picket line just weeks earlier and one of the coordinators of the March on Conventions Movement, to address our gathering. It was a sweltering 95 degrees outside that evening and the inadequate air-conditioning in a cramped room in our neighborhood community center made our meeting of 50 people feel twice as large in half the space. We were all dressed casually in shorts, T-shirts and sandals. The meeting had already started when Mr. Hill walked into the room.
I had only talked to him briefly when he was leading the picket line, so, to me, he was still Mr. Hill. But this time, in this setting of mostly young people, he seemed shy and a little awkward. I immediately began feeling closer to him, feeling that he was someone with whom I could be on a first-name basis. I remember thinking how very uncomfortable he must be in that heavy suit. Nevertheless, he was striking. He was at least five years older than most of us in the group, yet his sensitive, coffee-colored face and gentle brown eyes seemed to close the difference between him and us. He caught and held everyone’s attention — especially the women in that smoldering meeting room.
Norman was a wonderful speaker. But back then, though, I noticed a pronounced New York or Northeastern accent. I wasn’t alone. My best friend, Bobbie, who sat beside me, leaned over and whispered in my ear, “What is he saying?” “Where did he come from?” “I don’t understand a word he’s saying.” I said, “Shhh, I think he’s cute…I want to hear this.” After a while, I completely forgot his accent.
A new revolution began in the United States when young Negro students, some no older than most of you, went into an all-white restaurant in Greensboro, North Carolina demanding to be served. That sit-in helped to ignite the flames that sparked demonstrations all over this country.
I was sent here by a civil rights leader whose name is A. Philip Randolph. Mr. Randolph has called for a march on both political parties to let them know that their platforms must reflect a firm commitment to racial equality and the needs of all. We want you to be a part of this movement for change.
As Norman spoke, I knew that I really wanted to be a part of this movement for change. I wanted to hear more about A. Philip Randolph. I wanted to know more about the civil rights struggles. Most of all, I wanted to know more about this Norman Hill. His words reminded me that social activism was always a part of my life. Demonstrating for change was natural to me. As a very young kid, I walked picket lines with my mother when her union was on strike. I remembered the songs, the signs, the solidarity, the overwhelming feeling that everyone was united and marching for something important. I saw a future in Norman’s smile, and my college suddenly seemed very far away.
After the demonstration at the Republican Convention, the NAACP Youth Council discussions turned to staging a “wade-in demonstration” to desegregate Rainbow Beach. It was a popular stretch of sandy beach along Lake Michigan from 75th Street to 79th Street, part of a string of similar parks and recreation areas managed by the Chicago Park District.
Me and Norman knew that Chicago, one of the most residentially segregated cities in America, has a long, tragic history of racial tension and turf wars. On a Sunday, July 27, 1919, Eugene Williams, a 17-year-old Black youth, was swimming alone along the shore of Lake Michigan near the 29th Street Beach. Chicagoans knew that the 27th Street Beach was for Blacks, but not the beach two blocks to the south. When Eugene drifted across some invisible boundary that separated the white-only waters of the lake from the Black waters, some white beach bathers took the unwritten law in their hands. They began throwing rocks at the Black teenager until he drowned.
As late as July 30, 1960, on a Chicago beach, a Black police officer named Harold Carr and his wife and children were harassed by rocks and racist jeers hurled by a gang of White youth, according to an article published in the Chicago Daily Defender. It reported that Carr spotted a white police sergeant nearby, but the officer did not come to his family’s aid. Frustrated, Carr ran to his automobile and got his service revolver. But Carr and his family were forced to leave. The place was Rainbow Beach.
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