Ceremony Marks Effort to Integrate Rainbow Beach

Sunday, Aug 21, 2011  |  Updated 10:25 AM CDT
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Remembering Martin Luther King Jr.'s Dream

On Aug. 28, 1960, a group of young black activists walked onto Rainbow Beach, and suffered a brutal attack by white beachgoers. The "wade-in" led to the racial integration of the beach.

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Holding hands and singing inspirational songs, dozens of people including state leaders attended a ceremony Saturday to mark the 50th anniversary of efforts to integrate a public beach on Chicago's South Side.

Activist Velma Murphy Hill, a leader in the effort to integrate Rainbow Beach in the 1960s mainly through staged wade-ins, smiled broadly alongside her husband, Norman Hill, as they clasped hands with former demonstrators. The group members _ many of them now in their 70s and 80s _ embraced as they unveiled a commemorative plaque near the beach's entry. They later sang "We Shall Overcome."

Murphy Hill, who now lives in New York with her husband and hasn't returned to the beach in half a century, was ecstatic to be back. She said the water looked beautiful despite the morning rain.

"I'm coming back," Murphy Hill said. "And this time, when I come back, I'm going to go swimming for the first time."

Murphy Hill was a 21-year-old youth leader for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People when she walked with a group onto Rainbow Beach on Aug. 28, 1960. Beachgoers severely attacked her, causing injuries that required her to need 17 stitches to her head.

The event challenged Chicago's segregation around city beaches and parks. It would mark the beginning of staged wade-ins by dozens of people during the summer of 1960 and 1961. Demonstrators said mobs of whites used violence to keep black visitors from using the beach.

Her voice trembling, the now-71-year-old Murphy Hill recalled the incident Saturday as dozens of people listened inside the beach's packed field house.

"It's not a great day outside," she said of the rainy weather. "But I want you to know, for me, and I think for all of you, it's a great day inside."

Several state and city leaders attended the ceremony, including U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. and Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle. Many emphasized that more work was needed to improve employment opportunities, education and health care.

"Yes, we desegregated the beach," Jackson Jr. said. "But now we must expand and become a true rainbow coalition. That puts people to work on the South Side just like it does on the North Side."

The Rev. Otis Moss III, senior pastor at Trinity United Church of Christ on the city's South Side, compared the demonstrators' role to that of previous civil rights leaders like Rosa Parks.

"When you decided to trouble the water in 1960, the water had already been troubled," Moss said to applause. "We need people who are willing to trouble the waters."

About a dozen of those who participated in the staged wade-ins back then sat in the crowd as Moss and the others spoke. Many clutched canes; they all wore white roses on their clothing.

Jennie Mendelson, 89, of Chicago said she and her husband, Saul, participated in several wade-in demonstrations.

"He would be thrilled with this event," she said of her husband, who died in 1998. "My husband was an activist until the day he died."

Dianne Jones, 83, also of Chicago, said it was good to see some of the remaining demonstrators.

"I still remember the faces," she said as she looked around.

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