To paraphrase one of Martin Luther King’s most famous phrases, I could say: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards Tybee.”
In this case I am talking about an arc that has spanned 62 years. An arch that came to rest at the foot of Walter Parker Pier on August 17.
Former Tybee Mayor Parker, his wife Mary Ann and a hundred people were gathered for the unveiling of the latest marker erected by the Georgia Historical Society. The marker commemorates the events known as the “Savannah Beach Wade-Ins.” Part of the Georgia Civil Rights Trail, it details the nonviolent acts of bravery of young black college students who risked their bodies to challenge the racial segregation of the public beach.
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The date for the unveiling was chosen because it was exactly 62 years to the day since 11 students trained by Savannah’s WW Law and the NAACP Youth Council were arrested for attempting to swim. Tybee’s beaches were “whites only” back then.
The students were arrested and charged with undressing in public.
It was a big day for Georgia and a day of uncertainty and fear for the students. Going to Tybee meant going where they weren’t allowed to go. They would face an unknown law enforcement response. To comfort them, they sang freedom songs during the journey.
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It was Georgia’s first Wade-In. It followed an April event in Biloxi Mississippi that became known as the Bloody Wade-In. Black families who gathered on the beach to protest the segregation were attacked by a white mob. A historic marker on Biloxi Beach now commemorates this.
On August 17, 1960 in Tybee, it was hot, muggy, and scary for the eleven students. They didn’t know how the day would end. August 17, 2022 was hot, humid and not scary. We knew how it would end. It was an affirmation, a celebration.
Three of the coeds who attended those Wade-Ins in the early 1960s were there now to thank them for the steps they had taken into the troubled waters. They were teenagers then; they are now in their 70s. In their hearts, that youthful energy is clearly still beating.
Nowadays they seem to walk on water. These three women are Evalena Hoskins, Mary Gray and Edna Jackson. In his speech at the dedication, Tybee Island Historical Association Vice President Allen Lewis put the events of the wade-ins, sit-ins, and knee-ins of the early 1960s into context. “These students were ordinary people who did extraordinary things.”
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“The fight for equality is long and never ends. Equal access to our public beaches wasn’t always like it is today.” He recounted a 1938 Savannah Tribune comment on Negroes not being allowed on any part of the beach.
He cited a 1947 Savannah Morning News report of how the Tybee City Council rejected a petition to reserve a section of the beach for blacks.
Lewis described how from 1960 to 1963 there was constant anti-segregation action in Savannah. He recalled that in June 1963, after three years of peaceful protests in restaurants, movie theaters, public parks and department stores, violence did indeed erupt in downtown Savannah. Fires were set in Broughton Street in two riots days apart; there was extensive property damage and many injuries; Hundreds of demonstrators were arrested.
Only a few weeks later, on June 14th, the last Wade-In took place. The young students were taunted and harassed, chased back to their cars and arrested. But a tide had turned.
Citizen leaders in Savannah and Tybee began the hard integration work. The beach and other public areas were incorporated in October, eight months before the 1964 National Civil Rights Act was signed into law.
Lewis pointed to the marker and said we should never forget the role the Wade-ins played. The young students were on a mission. “They tested their faith on Savannah Beach. That God has divine power and that the U.S. Constitution was on their side as they fought injustice and evil.”
“In the face of racial terror, students responded to hate with love. With violence, with forgiveness. We remember these students for their hope. Hopelessness is the enemy of justice. your courage. Because peace requires courage. your persistence. Because justice is a constant struggle. And their faith. We will overcome that.”