Climbing Up the Rough Side of the Mountain: Excerpts from a book in progress by Norman and Velma Hill with David Evanier.
Beaches had long been fiercely segregated in Chicago. The NAACP Youth Council had voted to stage a wade-in at Rainbow Beach on the south side of the city in spite of the fact that the adult leadership of the NAACP had discouraged all direct action protests.
The heat rose in waves off the Chicago sidewalks that summer day. Going outside felt almost like walking into a furnace. I put on my shorts and shirt over my bathing suit. I had to use a towel to wipe off the perspiration streaming down my face. It was not just the temperature. It was also the anticipation of danger.
As I left the house, my mother stopped me, gave me a tight hug and said, “Velma, I want you to be very careful. Don’t take chances, and let me know that you’re all right when everything is over.” I had told her about what had happened in the past. A riot had taken place when three black teenage boys unknowingly drifted into the whites-only 29th Street beach, and while swimming, one boy drowned when he was hit by a rock thrown by someone in the white crowd. When the police refused to arrest the killer, a c rowd of angry blacks followed the officer, and whites at the beach surged toward them. Both sides threw stones and bottles. The violence spread into city neighborhoods and lasted for six days, leaving 38 people dead, 537 wounded and thousands homeless due to arson. Since then, blacks had been beaten up when when they tried to go to Rainbow Beach.
I gave my mother a big kiss and said, “Don’t worry, Ma. The police will be there. I’ll call you as soon as we finish the wade-in.”
I got into the car that came to pick me up and I was glad to see Norman smiling at me as I got into the front seat. We had had exactly one date. But I knew that I had fallen in love with him.
I was nervous all right, but I told myself, “Don’t show you’re worried. Be cool. Be confident. And don’t throw up. You’ve got to set a good example.”
When we got to the staging area at the park near the beach, 27 of the 33 people people who had signed up were there. Our team was integrated: there were 10 whites and 17 blacks.
As we walked onto the beach, I thought, “Boy, this beach is crowded.” People were playing volleyball, kids were running into the water, families were sitting on blankets and enjoying the afternoon. And they were all white. I looked around, and realized there were no police. As a precaution, I asked one of the white members of our group to phone the police department. He came back form the phone booth and gave me a thumbs-up that he had called and the police knew about the situation.
A group of men were sitting on a high wall near the water. Everyone turned to look at us as we moved slowly toward the water. As we approached, it seemed that all talking stopped, and everyone on the beach was staring at our group. I heard someone yell out, “You’re on the wrong beach, niggers.” I felt as if someone had slapped me across the face.
We tried to ignore the comment, found a place near the water, put down our blankets and started to play checkers, chess and cards. Some took out books and began to read.
After an hour, things got quiet and the beach thinned out. No one was playing volleyball and suddenly the beach was almost deserted. Norman said to me, “There are still no police anywhere.” I signaled the group that we should begin to leave. It was only 4 p.m. and the beach was so still.
We heard a drum beating--at first slowly and then louder and faster. We stood up and began packing our things when we saw a group of big, muscular white men, some in bathing suits but most in street clothes, approaching us from the right. Norman spotted another group approaching us from the left. At first they walked slowly.
As we walked, I started to sing “We Shall Overcome” and the others joined in. The drumbeats got louder and louder--like beating hearts. The phalanx of men moved toward us. Now we saw that they were carrying chains, bats and rocks. Only one face stood out to me. His body was tanned but his face was chalk-like, as though someone had drained it of all color. His ice blue hate-filled eyes seemed almost dead, as they stared out of his pinched, pockmarked face. He was the leader of the group.
Our backs were to the water. The only way off the beach was to walk past this angry mob. Someone from our group whispered, “Let’s get the hell out of here.” We kept singing. Rocks started flying. I felt a sharp pain in the back of my head and blood covered my white shirt. I was going down and Norman held me up and carried me as our group ran into a beach house several yards away. We locked the door, but we could hear the mob pounding, trying to get in. Suddenly we heard police sirens and then nothing. Someone outside yelled, “Open the door--this is the police. Is anybody hurt?” I was bleeding badly. They must have seen the blood on the ground outside the door. An ambulance came.
At the hospital, Norman was at my side, holding my hand. It took seventeen stitches to close my head wound. Other demonstrators had cuts and bruises. As I came out of the treatment area into the hospital waiting room, I was glad to see that everyone in our group was there.
We all agreed to come back the next week--and every week--until the beach was safe. And we did.
© 2005-2009 Per Contra: The International Journal of the Arts, Literature and Ideas
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