CFL News
August 22, 2011

Protesters recall ‘Wade-In’ that led to integration of Rainbow Beach

The Chicago Federation of Labor was proud to be a part of this historic civil rights commemoration

Source: Chicago Sun-Times

By Ariel Cheung

Five decades ago, Rainbow Beach was a radically different place. Segregation was rampant, and when a group of young activists sought to change that, they were met with a shower of rocks and jeers.

Velma Murphy Hill led 30 members of the NAACP Youth Council to Rainbow Beach Aug. 28, 1960, for the first of what became known as the Wade-In protests. An hour after they arrived, a white mob surrounded them and began hurling rocks, one of which struck Murphy Hill, then 21, in the head. Norman Hill, now her husband, and her brother carried her to safety, and her wound required 17 stitches.

The Wade-Ins continued the following summer, and the beaches eventually became integrated.

Murphy Hill and 10 others who took part in the Wade-Ins were joined by U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. , State Sen. Kwame Raoul and nearly 200 others Saturday to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Rainbow Beach Wade-Ins. The ceremony also included the unveiling of a memorial marking the significance of the initial protest.

Murphy Hill, 71, said Saturday she has no regrets.

“No beach, no apartment, no place in this city should discriminate against anybody,” said Murphy Hill, who came in from New York City to attend the ceremony. “This is our city. It should be for everybody.”

Raoul applauded the protesters for their courage and encouraged today’s youths to follow their example.

“It’s important, because if we don’t commemorate and celebrate the turning back of stones and the breaking down of barriers that preceded us, we won’t recognize the stones that are being thrown at us right now and the barriers that are being erected right now,” Raoul said.

Many of the activists noted the differences in the South Shore neighborhood over the past 50 years.

“South Shore is almost like a new community,” said Trudy Davis, 77, a protester who still lives in the neighborhood. “We are living and sharing with all the people from all walks of life. We’re not afraid and we’re feeling free.”

For Chakena Sims, 17, the story of the Wade-Ins is inspiring.

“It showed that younger people can play a role in history,” said Sims, a senior at Bronzeville Scholastic Institute. “This was a momentous event, because when we talk about civil rights, there was a racial divide right here in the Midwest, and not many people focus on that.”

Sims’ passion is something the original activists hope to spark in youth by commemorating the event.

“History is a great teacher, particularly for young people,” said protester Alice Palmer, 72. “It’s important for them to know where we’ve been to know where we’re going and make these things happen.”

Several of those at the first Wade-In reflected on what it meant to be back on the beach for the first time.

“It feels like a pilgrimage to a sacred place,” said Linda Wallack, 65, of Northampton, Mass. “And it’s a reminder of the work that still needs to be done.”