On June 18, 1964, protesters attempted to desegregate the white-only pool at the Monson Motor Lodge in St. Augustine, Florida, where earlier 16 praying rabbis had been arrested, along with Martin Luther King Jr. a week prior (NPR, UF). Outraged, the hotel owner dumped acid into the water to force the protesters to leave. They were eventually dragged out of the pool by police officers and sent to jail.
Images of the horrified swimmers made global headlines. And the next day, the Civil Rights Act was approved in the Senate, despite a 75-day filibuster against it. On July 2, 1964, President Lyndon Johnson signed the bill prohibiting segregation in public accommodations like swimming pools and beaches (Library of Congress).
The scene from St. Augustine created one of the most memorable images from the Civil Rights Movement. It was one in a series of regional and national campaigns that used the nation’s waters to push the country to desegregate.
• Support organizations like Tank Proof, making swim classes more accessible, and Brown Girl Surf, Urban Surf 4 Kids, and Surf Bus Foundation, connecting kids and young adults to the ocean.
• Support Big City Mountaineers, City Kids Wilderness Project, and the Fresh Air Fund, making the outdoors more accessible to underserved youth.
Beaches and pools have long been a site of segregation in this country. Like most public spaces, they were sites of racial tension and violence as Black people were excluded from enjoying the water.
In the Jim Crow South, intimidation and violence were used alongside formal and de facto segregation, resulting in deadly attacks from white mobs, arrests of Black beachgoers, and countless Black children drowned in bodies of water, creating an annual public health crisis each summer (The Guardian, North Carolina Scholarship Online). Subtler tactics were used in the North, including privatization and ordinances said to stop loitering and overcrowding, but these regulations were only enforced on Black people (New York Times). These “quality of life laws” allowed white citizens and officials to disguise their racist intentions as merely “upholding the law.”
Even if no law existed, law enforcement and white homeowners enforced segregation. Black patrons were barred from leisure and recreation, which were enjoyed exclusively by white people.
Black people were left with “remote, polluted, and often dangerous sections” of beachfront and waterways. Even the investment in public pools, starting in the 1920s, declined as Black and other people of color also benefited from access to publicly-funded pools (National Geographic).
The fight for equitable access to city waters (that Black taypayers’ money also helped maintain) spurred a form of civil disobedience called wade-ins (Time). Borne from the lunch counter sit-ins garnering national attention, wade-ins consisted of Black patrons entering and enjoying public waters to provoke a reaction. They occurred along coastal areas, including Florida and Mississippi. The goal was to garner awareness and support against the injustice and “challenge segregation in court” (Global Nonviolent Action Database).
“These were very strategic actions that were planned to get people arrested and beat up so they could bring their cases to court,” said David Perkes, an associate professor at Mississippi State University (History).
Organizers led by Dr. Gilbert Mason Sr. staged a series of three wade-ins to desegregate Biloxi, Mississippi’s public beaches. A wade-in on April 24, 1960, in honor of assassinated civil rights activist Medgar Evers, became known as “Bloody Sunday” after more than 120 demonstrators were violently attacked by a white mob armed with clubs and chains as police watched (WLOX). It would take eight years and a lengthy legal battle for the beaches to be desegregated (History).
Even with the passage of the Civil Rights Act, wade-ins continued as deep-rooted racism kept beaches and other waterways white. Movements like “free the beaches,” where busloads of Black and Latine children were brought to beaches in Connecticut during the 70s, popped up to push back (Smithsonian Magazine).
But segregated pools and beaches simply evolved into privatized beaches and members-only pools. Restrictive parking for nonresidents, excessive beach access fees, and limited transit options prevent real integration (WGBH).
These methods continue today, with “wealthy and predominantly white coastal communities still instituting restrictive policies to keep coastal access private” (American Progress). Only 10% of the coasts, tidal waterways, and the Great Lakes have robust legal protections for public access, and communities of color are three times more likely to live in nature-deprived places than their white counterparts. Incidences of white residents unleashing the police on Black swimmers continue to invade our feeds.
“At public beaches, in protected open spaces, people of color are often intentionally made to feel unwelcome,” said sociologist Neenah Estrella-Luna (WGBH). “It’s very difficult to get there. And so these little signals that people experience are also a major barrier to people even utilizing spaces that actually do exist for them.”
Enjoying public waters and outdoor spaces is one of the basic pleasures associated with summer in the United States. It will take a concerted effort to ensure that the legacy of segregated beaches becomes a thing of the past and not constant in our future.
• Beaches and pools were historically sites of racial tension and violence.
• Unequal access to city waters spurred a form of civil disobedience called wade-ins.
• Privatized beaches and members-only pool access followed desegregation.