Racine Bell and Stacey Alves, Black women in their 30s, were eager to host a small gathering and protest at Carson Beach in South Boston to commemorate the end of slavery for Juneteenth and to honor Black Americans, including George Floyd, killed by police.
They felt the sting of racism almost as soon they arrived.
On the morning of June 19, as they waited for the rest of their friends to arrive near the entrance of the Curley Community Center, a white man in a black pickup truck hollered as he drove past: “You [n-words] go back to Roxbury!” Their discomfort didn’t end there. Later that afternoon, Bell and Alves say, state troopers closely monitored their group for illegal alcohol consumption, while ignoring the predominantly white sunbathers on the beach.
“I didn’t feel comfortable, necessarily, going there,” Alves said. “We definitely were targeted [that] Friday.”
The episode was a harsh reminder to Alves and Bell of the enduring legacy of racism at Carson Beach, where change, while hard-fought, remains unfinished. Forty-five years ago, on Aug. 10, 1975, hundreds of Black protesters, fed up with the indignity and terror of living in an intensely segregated city, rallied at Carson Beach to assert their right to use Boston’s public spaces. What started as a peaceful protest, however, devolved into violence between Black and white demonstrators, further cementing Boston’s national reputation for racial rancor.
“The Carson Beach protests were an extension over the battles of school desegregation,” said Matthew Delmont, a history professor at Dartmouth College and author of “Why Busing Failed: Race, Media, and the National Resistance to School Desegregation.” “It also speaks to the larger context of race relations in Boston, where different groups felt like they had the authority to quote-unquote ‘defend’ different neighborhoods or defend their turf.”
In the summer of 1975, Boston was ripe for violence. A year earlier, US District Judge W. Arthur Garrity had found the Boston School Committee guilty of deliberately segregating the city’s schools. His ruling triggered vicious anti-integration protests, particularly in South Boston, where white, working-class residents ferociously resisted the enrollment of Black students at South Boston High.
Racial skirmishes flared throughout the school year and continued as the days grew hotter. On July 27, 1975, tensions boiled over when a white mob attacked a group of six out-of-state Black Bible and magazine salesmen who were visiting Carson Beach.
“We’ve been working all week and we just wanted to come to the beach and enjoy ourselves,” James Barrowright, one of the salesmen, told reporters at the time. He and two colleagues were forced to take shelter at the District 6 police precinct, while another salesman was taken to Boston City Hospital (now called Boston Medical Center) with head trauma. “Next thing we know, all we see is white faces calling us [n-words] and telling us to ‘get out of here.’ ”
One week after the attack on the Black salesmen, on Aug. 3, 1975, about 300 white youths, some as young as 10 or 12, turned up at Carson Beach, armed with makeshift weapons. Handwritten leaflets distributed throughout South Boston had warned that Black marchers planned to “ ‘take over our beaches and won’t let the honkies use them,‘ ” according to a Globe report. But the rumored “takeover” never materialized.
The specter of organized violence against Black Bostonians, however, was enough to compel protesters to the scene. Days later, Thomas Atkins, president of the Boston NAACP, along with the heads of other Black civic groups, announced their intention to hold a picnic at the beach on Sunday, Aug. 10, 1975. The purpose of the picnic, Atkins said, was to reaffirm “the fundamental right of every citizen to use public facilities” and to test if the police would protect them before another tumultuous school year began.
“We were tired of racism, meanness, violence, so we said we’re going to the beach — whatever it takes,” said 69-year-old Renee Cail, who had joined the protest as a young woman.
News of the event incensed the people of Southie. The South Boston Residents Group said the picnic would incite “retaliation,” and City Councilor Louise Day Hicks, Boston’s most prominent opponent of court-ordered desegregation, accused Atkins of “yell[ing] fire in a crowded theater.”
“There were threats, of course,” recalled 79-year-old Percy Wilson, executive director of the Roxbury Multi-Service Center at the time. He was one of the Black civic leaders sharing the podium with Atkins when the picnic-protest was announced and on the receiving end of several menacing phone calls. “I think my life was threatened. Some other peoples’ lives were threatened, but we didn’t see that as something that would cause us not to go.”
The day had “started optimistically enough,” the Globe reported. Black protesters convened at Franklin Park, and their 300-car motorcade, joined by a police escort, journeyed toward Carson Beach. By noon, however, throngs of white onlookers began clustering along the beachfront. Cail felt “leery” when she arrived and noticed all of the police officers, some on horseback. Things took a turn when a crowd of white counterprotesters stormed the shoreline, lobbing insults and projectiles at the Black demonstrators, including Cail’s husband, who was struck in the chest.
“It was supposed to be a peaceful protest,” she said. “But when they start calling us [n-words], ‘you don’t belong here, this is not your beach,’ that’s when the Black people started saying, ‘This is not your beach either’ . . . They were throwing anything at us they could get their hands on, and the Black people started throwing stuff back.”
The police attempted to separate the warring factions, pushing the white antagonists to Day Boulevard, while the Black protesters spilled into the ocean. The Globe described a surreal scene: A “thin line” of officers and a mere 10 yards of sand divided the Black and white crowds, who exchanged jeers and flung stones, bottles, and even shoes at one another. Helicopters droned overheard. “The ranks of both groups were swelling by the minute,” the Globe reported, “with dozens of new arrivals from every direction but the water.”
“I remember almost getting trampled with a horse. It was that fierce,” said the Rev. Miniard Culpepper, senior pastor of the Pleasant Hill Missionary Baptist Church in Dorchester and one of Cail’s brothers. Police on horseback charged into ocean. Rocks soared into the opposing groups and crashed on parked cars. Bloody brawls erupted. Sirens wailed in the distance.
In all, 800 police from multiple agencies were deployed to quell the turmoil at Carson Beach, 40 people were injured, and 10 were arrested. The Globe estimated that 1,500 white and as many as 700 Black people had assembled at the beach as the demonstration degenerated “into a fullfledged race riot.”
As soon as the melee broke out, Cail and her group raced to their car. In the years since, Cail, who now lives in Atlanta, hasn’t thought much about that “horrible, horrible” day in Southie, but the memories flood back in an instant. What stands out most were the looks on the white counter-protesters’ faces, scrunched up and seized with hate.
“Gosh, it was terrible, the way they look at you like you’re less than human,” she said. “It’s disheartening because you don’t understand why. What is it? What is it about us?”
“It shakes the very core of your being,” she added. “It’s that devastating.”
The clash at Carson Beach ignited a wave of street violence in Black and white neighborhoods over the next several days. But as the temperatures cooled the following week, so did tensions. Racial violence broke out again at Carson Beach in the summer of 1977 between white and Black residents of South Boston and Columbia Point. But decades later, Culpepper looks back at the 1975 beach protest as a victory for Boston’s Black community.
“Whenever I ride by there and I see Black people and white people on the beach and enjoying the beach, it reminds me of how much we fought for them to be able to enjoy that beach today,” he said.
Today, the sandy stretch along Dorchester Bay draws a more diverse crowd. On a recent weekday, a parade of multihued umbrellas dotted the pebble- and seashell-encrusted shore. A light breeze cut through the oppressive humidity. Several sought relief by wading in the ocean.
But wariness still lingers. Growing up in Roxbury, Bell, who helped organize the Juneteenth event, said she was warned Southie was a “no-go zone” for Black people. When Alves’s mother, Lorraine Marshall, was 12 years old, a stranger shoved her off the pier at Carson Beach. Marshall didn’t know how to swim. Her white friend, who’d invited her to the beach, dove in after her.
They marched nevertheless that Friday, playing James Brown’s “I’m Black and I’m Proud” on loudspeakers and chanting through a megaphone, “We come in peace! Black lives matter on Carson Beach!” Then they formed a circle and stood in silence for 8 minutes and 46 seconds — the length of time a white Minneapolis police officer crushed George Floyd’s neck beneath his knee. Dozens of strangers joined them, Alves said, “as far as you could see out, to the left, to right, to the water.”
It was a poignant moment — the highlight of a day marred by racism. Bell has no desire to ever return. But Alves wants to go back and press for change, to ensure no one else feels unwelcome at Carson Beach.
“We want to be able to just go to the beach and have a great day,” Alves said. “We need to make sure we make that happen.”