Rainbow Beach and Black Press

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More than 50 years ago, standing on Rainbow Beach with Lake Michigan to our backs and an angry, white mob seething before us, the last thing we were thinking about was how this would play in the press.

More than 50 years ago, standing on Rainbow Beach with Lake Michigan to our backs and an angry, white mob seething before us, the last thing we were thinking about was how this would play in the press.

Perhaps we should have. What we did on August 28, 1960 by leading a protest to desegregate Chicago’s lakefront beaches would have been little more than a whisper in the wind if our efforts had not made the local newspapers. This was most extraordinarily evident when it came to the coverage we received in the Black press.

Black publications have historically – even before the Civil War – informed and encouraged its largely Black readership while simultaneously crusading for racial justice.

As the president of the NAACP Youth Council, with my soon-to-be-husband, Norman Hill, at my side, I was the one out front of our integrated “wade-in.” Maybe as a consequence, I was the one struck in the head by a rock; the one bloodied and left lapsing in and out of consciousness.

The picture of a 21-year-old Black activist seated in Jackson Park Hospital grasping her head wound was published in this newspaper. The article, one of many that would accompany it, stirred outrage over the way we all were assaulted.

Honest and righteous journalism helped to tip public opinion in our favor, in favor of changing a practice – not a law – that generally discouraged Black Chicagoans from using parks and beaches that their tax money funded just as much as white tax revenues did.

The white, so-called mainstream, press, covered the events at Rainbow Beach too. But those stories tended toward brief notices of a disturbance on the beach. Some even underreported my injury, noting that I was “glanced” with a rock. My “glance” required 17 stitches. I sustained an injury so severe that it led to an arterial rupture the following year, resulting in a miscarriage. In the aftermath, doctors advised me that I should never have children.

Norman and I never did.

Today, the Black Press faces the same crushing pressures, forcing the nation’s newspapers and magazines to cut back, reassess, even disappear all together. Despite disadvantages, the Black Press has a rich history.

“Black newspapers provided a forum for debate among African Americans and gave voice to a people who were voiceless,” opens Stanley Nelson’s 1999 documentary, The Black Press: Soldiers Without Swords.

We know this to be true. We have spent a lifetime as activists. Our work would have been virtually impossible without the help of the Black Press.

Velma and I were part of the first organizing meetings for the 1963 March on Washington. We know, firsthand, how essential the Black Press was in helping to mobilize hundreds of thousands of people to leave their homes, their places of work, to make history.

Consider the role the Black Press, this newspaper in particular, played in persuading millions of African Americans to leave the South in the early 20th century and travel North in the Great Migration. Historians have written that the Defender helped to redefine Black journalism by publishing cartoons that depicted the poor conditions of Southern Blacks while highlighting stories of success of Blacks who went North.

Similarly, the Black Press applied persistent and eloquent pressure on the White House to integrate the U.S. armed forces, giving greater voice to a long campaign led by A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin – our mentors – that finally led to President Harry Truman doing just that in 1948.

Even the desegregation of major league baseball came in a torrent of ink penned by powerfully persuasive writers like Sam Lacy of the Black Press that advocated an end to segregation in America’s favorite pastime. Some of the most notable articles were found in Baltimore’s Afro-American and, yes, the Chicago Defender.

On August 20, we are returning to Rainbow Beach to honor and remember what was accomplished there so many years ago. But as we do, let us not forget to appreciate the Black Press that will, no doubt, be there chronicling our history as it always has and, God willing, always will.

Norman and Velma Murphy Hill live in New York and are writing their memoir, Climbing Up the Rough Side of the Mountain.

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