Wading into Chicago's segregated past

August 4, 2011

Richard Steele & Katie O'Brien

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(Flickr/aja)
Chicago's beaches were once segregated; Richard Steele reports on the 'wade-ins' that helped end that segregation 50 years ago.

Violence is deeply rooted in Chicago’s history. Racial tensions contributed to that sad truth for years but in 1960s, it was a truth many young people could no longer swallow. They confronted hate with, of all things, non-violent demonstrations. The peaceful but sometimes dangerous strategy became a cornerstone of the Civil Rights Movement. Fifty years ago, Chicago’s beaches were segregated—not by law but by neighbors.
So demonstrators decided to wade-in. WBEZ’s Richard Steele brought Eight Forty-Eight the story. And one quick warning--- there is strong language in this conversation.

Music Button: Ramsey Lewis, "Wade in the Water", from the Album Hang On Ramsey/Wade in the Water, (BGO Records)

Race relations in America took a decided but difficult turn in the 1960s. Non-violent demonstrations across the country confronted racism, segregation and hatred head on. Young people, students—black and white—took part in sit-ins and freedom rides.

Though much attention was paid to the Jim Crow South, Chicago had its own racial divide.

A number of Chicago neighborhoods that had been, “all white,” became integrated—South Shore was one of those neighborhoods. As blacks continued to move in and attempted to use public facilities, like Rainbow Beach, there was a growing resentment stewing among a vocal segment of the white community.

The tension turned physical in August of 1960. A black policeman and his family were run off Rainbow Beach by other beachgoers. The incident sparked a “call to action” from Velma Murphy, who was president of the NAACP Youth Council; and so she gathered her troops. She turned to another young organizer who had successfully wrangled white support at the University of Chicago. Norm Hill helped integrate the effort—and won Velma’s heart in the process. They married within the year and are still married to this day.

They knew there was potential for violence but they were young—and brazen. Velma said it was the audacity of young people; that they didn’t think they would be hurt and that the police would protect them. But the police weren’t there and they were hurt—no one more than Velma. She shared her vivid memories of what happened on that hot August day on Rainbow Beach.

Their demonstration was not met with unconditional support from the civil rights community. Steele spoke to Timuel Black who is a retired college professor, political activist and one of the black community’s most highly respected historians. Black remembered, in fact, being asked to stop the demonstrators.

But they were young and not easily discouraged. So they went back to the beach—week after week. And Black started going too. At the time, Black was the Chicago president of the American Labor Council. So, he made sure the “city fathers” paid attention and that the protestors were protected by Chicago police officers.

Many forget about the wade-ins at Rainbow Beach. But Velma Murphy Hill can’t. The summer of 1960 and her experience on the sands of that beach etched deep physical and emotional scars. The events of that day changed Velma’s life forever—and gave it new purpose.

The memory and importance of the wade-ins of the early 1960s at Rainbow Beach should not be carried out with the tides of time. A coalition of civil rights and labor groups hope to make sure of that.

Fifty years later, an historic marker will be dedicated at Rainbow Beach on Saturday, Aug. 20—and it is what will ultimately bring Velma back to the beach.