It's weird how life imitates art -- like the book I'm currently reading, which is supposed to be history but now feels more like current events. It's called "Sweet Land of Liberty" by Penn professor Thomas Sugrue, and it's a history of the American civil rights movement...in the Deep North, including right here in Philadelphia. Sugrue's overarching point is that while segregation was not deeply embedded in the laws here as it was in the South, it was still a way of life from schools to housing (much is said about the integration of Levittown) to movie theatres, and many brave souls had to do battle for their American liberties. The other night, I was reading Sugrue's passage on how desegration of swimming pools -- where co-ed crowds in bathing suits came in close contact, generating anxiety -- was especially thorny in the North.
He notes this example from the other side of Pennsylvania, where a favorable court ruling in the city of Pittsburgh in 1950 and the hiring of a black lifeguard in 1953 had encouraged activists:
Flush with victory, activists had targeted schools just outside the city limits, but there, without the law behind them, they faced intense opposition. When a group of unionists and Catholic priests threatened to cancel events at suburban Kennywood Park to protest discrimimation, park managers converted the swimming area into a "boating lake" to keep would-be Negro bathers away. "We have found our swimming pool was not a particularly profitable operation," claimed the pool manager. "Regardless of our personal feelings," he claimed, "we are not in a position where we can afford to take a chance on a riot or on racial disorder. We have to cater to the majority." At Alleghemy County's South Park, which had two pools, officials continued to 'escort Negroes" away from the main pool to a smaller one, pursuing a "separate but equal" swimming policy. In July, two members of a teenage youth group demanded that they be allowed into the main pool, but their efforts met with counterattack. A white lifeguard "advised them that if they wanted to avoid bloodshed," that they should leave. After the brouhaha, park officials promised that "Negroes have the same rights and privileges as other persons" and pledged that black swimmers would be treated fairly. At nearby West Park, officials avoided integration altogether by closing the pool, filling it in and paving it over."
I reprint this because it's one of those passages you read and think, "Wow, was that really happening in America less than 60 years ago?' It's pretty remarkable, and to paraphrase Hemingway, isn't it pretty to think so that we've come such a long way since then. Until you wake up two days later and wonder how far society has really come after all:
A Huntington Valley swim club is facing accusations of racial discrimination after 65 children from a Northeast Philadelphia day camp claim they heard prejudicial remarks by club members and later had their club membership rescinded.
The children, kindgergarten through 7th graders who attend the Creative Steps, Inc. day camp, showed up to the pool at The Valley Swim Club on June 29.
While the campers were swimming, Alethea Wright, executive director of Creative Steps, said three children came up to her and said they heard club members asking what African Americans were doing at the club.
There is racial progress in America -- but it's sure easy to get swept away in the powerful symbols, most notably a black president and even the wall-to-wall TV coverage of the funeral of a popular African-American entertainer. Symbols can be just that, while real progress against deep-seated and irrational prejudices can be a neverending struggle, a million small battles fought in places like a quiet suburban swimming pool. Which is why they sing that "We shall overcome...some day."
(Photo at top is from St. Louis Globe-Democrat archives-University of Missouri. The black swimmers, photographed in 1949, were reportedly attacked by an angry white mob not long after the picture was taken.)