How a 1960s-era campaign to open beaches to the public exposed Connecticut’s deeply entrenched racism.
In 1964, inspired by John Kennedy’s call for “a citizenry guided by the maxim of self-sacrifice for the public good,” 23-year-old Ned Coll quit his job at an insurance company in Hartford, Connecticut, and started a local project that he called the Revitalization Corps. In a well-documented—and dispiriting—history of prejudice and inequality, Kahrl (History and African American Studies/Univ. of Virginia; The Land Was Ours: African American Beaches from Jim Crow to the Sunbelt South, 2012) focuses on Coll’s career as a brash, indefatigable anti-poverty activist to reveal endemic bigotry in a state renowned for its liberal values. Connecticut’s shore—the state’s Gold Coast—was dotted with wealthy communities whose residents fiercely protected private use of the beaches. Physical barriers, exorbitant access fees for nonresidents, and bans on street parking near beaches were a few of the strategies deployed to keep Connecticut’s poor off the white sands. “In a state where extreme wealth and equally extreme poverty resided in close proximity,” writes the author, “beach access restrictions complemented, reinforced, and helped to naturalize the barriers dividing thriving suburbs from dying cities.” Along with education and housing reform, Coll focused much energy on beach access, filling buses with children from poor cities and transporting them to private beaches, devising a program like New York’s Fresh Air Fund to give children a chance to live with white families for a portion of the summer, and mounting repeated lawsuits. The push for beach access spawned a nationwide movement: between 1964 and 1974, Kahrl discovered, “federal and state courts decided at least twenty-six cases involving disputes over public rights on beaches” in which white communities argued vociferously for their entitlement. Despite many successes, Coll never took on the challenge of “dismantling the structures” and institutions that perpetuate racial inequality, and he became increasingly “unhinged, reckless, and counterproductive” as he lost the public’s respect.
An unsparing exposé of white supremacy among Northern elites.