On Sunday, August 28, 1960, the editors of the Chicago Daily Defender made a rare decision: they reset their front page for the final edition of the next day’s paper. That morning, the Southside NAACP Youth Council had staged a “wade-in” at Rainbow Beach, a public park. Thirty young people, black Chicagoans, and a few white allies from the University of Chicago occupied part of the beach for two hours as a hostile crowd gathered around them. When they rose to leave, the Defender reported, “stones began to rain down,” and white police officers on duty “did nothing to stop the surging mob” for several minutes. Velma Murphy, the twenty-one-year-old president of the Youth Council, was struck on the head with a brick, opening a wound that required seventeen stitches. While Chicago’s Tribune and Sun-Times buried news of the protest in their back pages, the Defender put Murphy and her fellow wounded wader, Howard Irvin, on the cover the next day, under the massive headline “Mob Injures Two at Rainbow Beach.” The accompanying story noted that the waders planned to return the following week.
Murphy and the Youth Council organized the Rainbow Beach Wade-Ins in response to a long history of segregation and violence on Chicago’s lakefront. Their campaign ushered in a new era of direct-action protest in the city’s long freedom struggle. Throughout, the Defender played a pivotal role: as a source of information and inspiration to organizers, as a record of their actions, and as a prominent voice of support in the black community.
Black Chicagoans had endured generations of white supremacy on beaches. The city’s infamous 1919 riots began when white beachgoers stoned and drowned a black teenager whose raft had drifted into their waters. Ever after, white mobs had menaced black bathers who dared to swim alongside them, and police officers had enforced beach segregation by arresting those who challenged it under the guise of “keeping the peace.” The Defender carried reports of beach violence every summer, including the story of a black police officer whose family was driven from Rainbow Beach by a mob while his white, on-duty counterpart looked on in July of 1960.
Despite this ongoing harassment, the Youth Council’s protest did not have the support of its parent organization; the Chicago NAACP and the city’s black political establishment avoided direct confrontations with Mayor Richard J. Daley. Murphy and the Youth Council, however, worked closely with Norman Hill, a young organizer for A. Philip Randolph’s Negro-American Labor Council (Hill and Murphy married in 1961). Hill shared Randolph’s socialist tradition of direct-action protest with the Youth Council, while they read about the sit-in movement and decolonization struggles in the pages of the Defender. As Velma Murphy Hill recalled to this author in 2005, “Young people were the burgeoning civil rights order … we heard that there were people standing up for their rights, and then we heard about what was going on in Chicago, and we knew we had to be a part of that, to do something about it.” On August 28, they launched their wade-in.
Nonviolent direct action demanded publicity, and the Defender was there to provide it. As Hill’s friend and mentor Timuel Black recalled, “When we saw our young people being attacked, those of my generation, we decided we had to protect them.” The following Sunday, 150 black and white Chicagoans representing the NAACP, CORE, and several local organizations waded in under the watchful eyes of 200 police officers and local news cameras. The Defender covered the protest under the headline “Stage Successful Wade-In.” Chicago’s beaches closed for the season on Labor Day—September 5, 1960—but the protests would continue the following summer.
Before the wade-ins began again in 1961, the Defender declared itself for direct action in a June editorial titled “Sit-Ins for Chicago.” Throughout July and August, the paper’s coverage of the protests ran under a masthead that read: “We Need Sit-Ins for Chicago. Freedom Now, Eradicate Segregation Now.”
The city’s black political leadership, clergy, and civil rights organizations followed suit, embracing the wade-ins and demanding equal access to public space. Their presence increased the profile of the campaign, and when violence erupted during the inaugural 1961 wade-in, it made national news. Embarrassed, the Chicago Police Department began arresting white rioters and publicly affirming the rights of black Chicagoans. By August, the Defender could report: “Peace Reigns at Rainbow Beach.” The news augured the beginning of the end for segregated beaches in Chicago and the opening of a new chapter in the city’s long freedom struggle.
Simone Manuel’s landmark victory in Rio this summer has generated welcome public reflection on the history of segregated swimming in the United States. This history has a persistent legacy, from the lack of diversity in Olympic pools to the fact that black children drown at over three times the rate of their white counterparts. The fight for equal access to public pools and beaches remains unfinished, but seeing Manuel atop the podium is nonetheless cause for celebration. Few children of any race will become Olympians, but far more today have access to recreational water-spaces – in which they can learn to swim safely – after struggles like the Rainbow Beach Wade-Ins.
Further reading on the Rainbow Beach Wade-Ins:
Ryan Haggerty, “Rainbow Beach ‘wade-ins’ hailed as key battle in civil rights struggle,” Chicago Tribune, August 20, 2011. http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2011-08-20/news/chi-ceremony-marks-effort-to-integrate-chicago-beach-20110820_1_beach-goers-civil-rights-white-activists
Nick Juravich, “Wade in the Water: The NAACP Youth Council, the Sit-In Movement, and the Rainbow Beach Wade-Ins in Chicago, 1960–1961.” Chicago Studies 1, no. 1 (November 2008).
John Keilman, “Rainbow Beach ‘wade-ins’ broke down racial barrier,” Chicago Tribune, July 11, 2011. http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2011-07-10/news/ct-met-rainbow-beach-20110710_1_rainbow-beach-black-cop-whites
Chakena Sims, “Violent Reaction to Non-Violent Protest: A Revolutionary Wade-In to Freedom,” National History Day Website (contains interviews with wade-in participants): http://74995953.weebly.com/index.html
For further reading on postwar segregation in Chicago, see, among many others, Arnold Hirsch’s classic Making the Second Ghetto: Race and Housing in Chicago, 1940–1960 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998 ), which contains a three-line mention of the wade-ins). On segregated swimming, see Jeff Wiltse, Contested Waters: A Social History of Swimming Pools in America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007) and Victoria W. Wolcott, Race, Riots, and Roller Coasters: The Struggle over Segregated Recreation in America (Philadelphia: Penn Press, 2012). On the Defender, see Ethan Michaeli, The Defender: How the Legendary Black Newspaper Changed America from the Age of the Pullman Porters to the Age of Obama (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016).