By Peyton Jones, Ph.D.
With all the fuss about plaques and street murals, I was disappointed when I took my daughter to the newly renovated pier, to the Spa Bistro, and found nothing that commemorated a seminal moment in the local civil rights movement.
More than a year after the Brown decision, and months before the Montgomery bus boycott introduced the nation to Martin Luther King Jr., a group of civil rights activists calling themselves the Cooperative Citizens Committee, attempted to gain entrance to the racially segregated beach and pool facilities at Spa Beach. They were turned away, and when they protested, the gate attendant summoned a local police officer, who suggested the group head for South Mole (today part of Demens Landing ), a dingy and trash-laden strip of land south of the pier the only spot in town where black residents were allowed to swim.
The members of the CCC, including Dr. Fred Alsup and J.P. Moses, sued the city for violating their civil rights and launched the local movement to integrate public accommodations.
Meanwhile, City Manager Ross Windom closed Spa Beach and stationed police officers at the entrance. Over the next four years, even after a federal appeals court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, he and city officials scrambled to preserve segregation. The city council proposed building a new beach site for black residents, at one point suggested reopening North Shore beach on a whites-only basis, and eventually considered razing the pool and beach facilities altogether and replacing them with a domed auditorium. Occasionally, the city quietly reopened Spa only to close it again after black residents conducted more unofficial “swim-ins.”
With no clear-cut political solution in sight, and unable to continue flouting federal law, the city, in the spring of 1959, finally gave up its fight to keep the beach and pool segregated.
The protracted struggle over Spa Beach and Pool ignited a broad-scale movement to abolish Jim Crow in all of the city’s public accommodations.
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