By now we’ve all seen the video — a white cop goes Rambo on black teens at a pool party, curses them, wrestles one girl to the ground, draws his gun and waves it at the unarmed kids.
IT’S NOT ABOUT ONE COP: IT’S ABOUT US
This happened in McKinney, Texas on Friday, June 5, 2015. Once again, cellphone activism was used to alert the nation. The video went viral. By that Sunday, Officer Eric Casebolt was off the job. Some commentators said he was a “bad apple.” Others said was a good cop having a very bad day. Both miss the point. This is not about a lone officer’s failure to do the “right” thing or even the “helpful” thing. It’s about us.
It’s been hard to pin down exactly what sparked this confrontation. By some reports, a black teen who lives in the area and had a legit pass to the pool threw a party and invited friends, both black and white. Some friends with legit invitations brought other friends. At some point, two white women began hurling racist slurs and one yelled, “Go back to your section 8 housing.” As tensions escalated, several people called the police, including the mother of one of the black teens.
WE SINK OR SWIM TOGETHER
Since the clash in McKinney, much has been written about the U.S. experience of swimming together — or not. (See recommended articles below.) Here’s the gist:
Phase 1. In the North, municipal pools were built in the 1880s as places for unwashed immigrants and laborers of all races to swim for health and cleanliness. Women had access to pools on alternate days from men.
Phase 2. By the 1920s, women and men, working class and middle class, were swimming together for fun. As bathing outfits got skimpier, public pools and beaches became increasingly racially segregated, with blacks forcibly excluded, legally or extra-legally.
Phase 3. Blacks and their white allies began to challenge segregated swimming areas in the 1950s, along with lunch counters, libraries, and other public arenas. One nonviolent tactic was the “wade-in.” When pools and beaches became racially integrated, many whites put pools in their backyards and abandoned public swimming areas.
RAINBOW BEACH WADE-IN
There were no laws keeping the Chicago-area beaches racially segregated in 1960, but there might as well have been. Velma Murphy decided to challenge this by organizing a wade-in. She was the 21-year-old president of the Southside NAACP Youth Council.
On August 28, she led thirty activists, all but a quarter of them black, to Rainbow Beach where white families sunbathed, swam, and picnicked. She heard one man snarl, “You niggers are on the wrong beach,” but the activist group bravely laid out their beach towels, and tried to act nonchalant. They swam and waded in the water, dried off, tried to concentrate on games of checkers.
Two hours passed when they suddenly realized that all the white women and children had left the beach. A knot of young men surrounded them. When the white mob began hurling rocks, one hit Velma in the head. It required 17 stitches, causing temporary paralysis and a permanent limp. She was unable to attend the “wade-in” the following week, which was larger and had better police protection. The following summer, a number of groups joined the NAACP in trying to integrate the beach, including the Catholic Interracial Council and the Jewish Board of Rabbis.
As Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” In 2011, Velma returned to Rainbow Beach with a coalition of civil rights and labor groups to dedicate a historic marker commemorating the “wade-ins.”
HOW DO YOU SEGREGATE AN OCEAN?
Another early challenge came in Biloxi, MS with a series of “wade-ins” beginning in 1959. Two weeks after the assassination of Medgar Evers, in June, 1963, protesters planted black flags on the beach in his memory, but they were met with a violent white mob of over 2,000.
The U.S. Justice Department sued the city for denying black beach-goers access to public space and, after a long fight, won. By 1968, the beach was open to all.
Dramatic news photos documented a similar struggle on the whites-only beaches in St. Augustine, FL. Rev. King became involved and was arrested there. But it was what happened on June 18, 1964 that made history. When young activists jumped into the whites-only pool at the Monson Motor Lodge, the hotel manager poured acid in the water. No one was hurt, but the photo of his barbarity shocked the nation. The very next day, the Civil Rights Act was passed in the U.S. Senate, after an 83-day filibuster by the “Southern Bloc.”
TO GO DEEPER
Contested Waters: A Social History of Swimming Pools in America by Jeff Wiltse, The University of North Carolina Press, 2007.
“Who Gets to Go to the Pool?” by Brit Bennett, The New York Times, June 10, 2015
“McKinney, Texas, and the Racial History of American Swimming Pools” by Yoni Appelbaum, The Atlantic, June 8, 2015
“America’s Swimming Pools Have a Racist History” by Jeff Wiltse, Washington Post, June 10, 2015
“Our Segregated Summers: The Police Misconduct in McKinney, Texas, is part of America’s long, fraught history of race and swimming” by Jamelle Bouie, Slate, June 9, 2015
“Swimming Pools and Racial Tension” on The Kojo Nnamdi Show, Monday, June 15, 2015, radio discussion with guests Jeff Wiltse, Jamelle Bouie, and Brit Bennett.
“Texas Community Questions Police Use of Force at Pool Party” PBS NewsHour, June 8, 2015 (5:58 mins.)
“The Daily Show: Jon Stewart Finds ‘Progress’ in McKinney: ‘Nobody Is Dead’” 6/8/15