In August 1975, when hundreds of Black protesters convened at Carson Beach in South Boston, the city was a powder keg of racial discord. Boston had been wracked with violence since the previous year, when it implemented a busing program to comply with US District Court Judge W. Arthur Garrity’s order to desegregate its public schools. Whites had pelted school buses with rocks and eggs and clashed with city police, with the Irish-Catholic neighborhood of South Boston at the nexus of racist resistance against integration. The National Guard had been called in to keep order, but racial skirmishes erupted throughout that school year and continued into summer. Then, in late July 1975, six Black men who had come from out of state to sell Bibles and magazines went to Carson Beach to relax a little. A white mob attacked them, sending one of the salesmen to the hospital with head trauma.
That was “the last straw” for Black Bostonians, as 18-year-olds Joette Chancy and Brenda Franklin later described it in the journal The Black Scholar. Not only were white segregationists trying to take away their right to attend particular schools, “but also what streets we could walk on, where we could work, and even where we could go for a swim.”
Two weeks later, on a bright Sunday afternoon, Thomas Atkins, president of the Boston NAACP, led a picnic-protest at Carson Beach. It was supposed to be a peaceful event, but by the time Black demonstrators arrived, throngs of white people had already begun congregating along the South Boston beachfront.
Police officers from the now-defunct Metropolitan District Commission, some on horseback, were out in force. But tensions escalated quickly. White counterprotesters surged onto the beach, hurling stones and insults at Black demonstrators, who struck back. Officers attempted to separate the warring factions, pushing the white antagonizers to Day Boulevard while the Black protesters spilled into the water. Police on horseback charged into the ocean. Bloody skirmishes erupted. Sirens wailed and helicopters droned overhead. In all, 800 police from multiple agencies were deployed to quell the violence at Carson Beach, 40 people were injured, and 10 were arrested. The Globe estimated that 1,500 white and 600 to 700 Black people had assembled at the beach as the demonstration devolved “into a full fledged race riot.”
“It was a horrible, horrible morning in South Boston,” recalls Renee Cail, now 69, who attended the event as a young woman with her husband, sister, and a friend. “But we were determined. We had a right to go to the beach too, and that’s what we did.”
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