READ THIS: Racism and Beaches – a Surprisingly Fascinating History

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Free the Beaches: The Story of Ned Coll and the Battle for America’s Most Exclusive Shoreline by Andrew H. Kahrl

In the 1960s, Connecticut allowed the public access to just seven miles of its 253-mile shoreline.  The rest of the state’s beaches were private property.  While the state’s most disadvantaged residents sweltered during the summer in cities like Hartford and Bridgeport, much of the shoreline was under the control of exclusive country and yacht clubs, owners of sprawling beachside mansions, and wealthy white beach towns. 

Ned Coll, a white anti-poverty activist, set out to open Connecticut’s beaches to poor and minority residents – and he started a mass movement to do it. Coll’s tactics were straightforward – he often rented school buses, filled them with mothers and children, and simply headed for the coast.  “He would show up at an all-white beach with a busload of black kids [and say] ‘here we are!’ And challenge anybody to throw them out,” journalist Tom Condon recalled.  One of the mothers who came with him recalled that when the white beachgoers told her and the other mothers and children that the beach was private, she responded, “You don’t own this ocean! The ocean belongs to all of us.”

Andrew Kahrl, an associate professor of history and African American studies at the University of Virginia, tells this story of popular resistance to inequality with authority and verve – and he explores the strong ironies that this particular part of the civil rights movement unfolded in one of the nation’s most liberal states, which had cheered on movements to integrate the Jim Crow South, but defended its own segregation by invoking private property rights.

Free the Beaches is more relevant than ever today – particularly with the recent controversy over two black men being arrested for sitting in a Starbucks in Philadelphia, which has refocused the nation on the issue of racism in public and quasi-public spaces.  Coll’s crusade was about the beaches, but also a great deal more.  “It was,” journalist Condon says, “a bold and incredible kick in the teeth of . . .  structural racism.”