On 27 August 1963 Ledger Smith set off from Chicago and made his way to join Martin Luther King’s March on Washington. He didn’t take a bus or a train and he didn’t drive – he made his way on rollerskates.
Wearing a placard emblazoned with the slogan, “I’m skating to Washington for Civil Rights” he completed the 685-mile journey in 10 days. Many people cheered him on – but one racist tried to run him over.
Ledger Smith’s choice of transport was no accident. As Victoria W Wolcott’s wonderful book Race, Riots and Roller Coasters demonstrated, the battles to desegregate public and leisure facilities played a pivotal role in the US Civil Rights Movement.
Writing from his Birmingham jail cell, Martin Luther King described the hurt of not being able to protect your child from racism.
When you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six year old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children… then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait.
——Martin Luther King, Jr, Letter from a Birmingham Jail, 1963
The first four=wheeled skate (or quad skate) was developed in New York in 1863 and the first roller rink was opened in the city a year later. Rollerskating was originally an entertainment for the rich. But by the end of the 1800s rollerskates were being mass-produced in the US.
Rollerskating has gone through several phases of mass popularity: firstly from the end of the First World War to the beginning of the Great Depression. It became popular again in the 1950s and then became a mass craze in the 1970s and 1980s as roller rinks became roller discos.
However, up until the 1960s most rollerskating rinks, amusement parks and swimming pools were either formally segregated or black and Hispanic people were simply barred from using them.
This was not confined to the Southern states where Jim Crow was in operation – a system of legal apartheid. In the Northern states time-honoured racist practices meant amusement owners denied black and Hispanic people entry into their facilities. There were always police and white racists at hand to enforce these practices.
The struggle to desegregate recreation facilities began after the first Great Migration and rapidly increased after the Second World War.
The campaigns took many different forms: the civil rights organisation the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and the US Communist Party (CPUSA) used a combination of pickets, boycotts and legal measures to challenge segregation.
In 1938 the CPUSA organised an interracial campaign to desegregate a rollerskating rink in Brooklyn. The following year black and white catering workers’ union members in New York threatened to take the Mecca Roller Skating Palace to court when it wouldn’t sell tickets to their black members.
The management backed down and the victory was celebrated with a mass integrated roller-skate party at the Mecca. The CIO organised a campaign against the colour bar implemented at the Rocky Springs Park in the same year.
In 1942 CORE – the Congress of Racial Equality – was launched. One of its first targets was the aptly named White City rollerskating park in Chicago. When CORE’s legal challenge failed it changed tactics and organised direct action against the rink.
CORE also developed the tactic of the “stand in” – blocking the entrances so nobody could get in. The protests went on for several months and a number of activists were arrested. But they did manage to cut the attendance down by 50% – and the White City management was forced to climb down and desegregate the rink.
Following the victory against the owners of White City, CORE led other successful campaigns to desegregate recreational facilities in Chicago, New Jersey, Cleveland and Los Angeles.
The NAACP organized legal challenges to segregated roller-skating rinks in Flint, New Jersey, Cincinnati and a host of other towns and cities.
From the opening shots of the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955 to the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the battles to desegregate rollerskating rinks and amusement parks played an important if unrecognised role in the Civil Rights Movement.
In her book, Race, Riots and Roller Coasters: The Struggle over Segregated Recreation in America, Victoria Wolcott records a number of heroic campaigns. I just want to highlight one – Cairo’s Roller Bowl.
In 1962 high school students in Cairo, Illinois, began a series of sit-ins at the pool and a segregated rollerskating rink, the Roller Bowl. Many were arrested and 17 went on hunger strike.
Their actions gained national attention and civil rights campaigners went to Cairo to help the young activists. When the boycott and pickets of the Roller Bowl gained momentum, white racists armed with chains and knuckledusters attacked the pickets – 38 black protestors were injured.
The campaign ended with Roller Bowl desegregating, although the owner of the swimming pool closed it down rather than let black people use it.
By the end of the 1960s most rollerskating rinks, amusement parks and swimming pools were desegregated.
Sadly the story doesn’t end there. Last year I went to a rollerskating jam in Detroit. Inside, black and white youth skated away but as they left the police, with nightsticks and dogs, were waiting outside. Some skaters were harassed and pushed by the police. Fifty years on from the March on Washington some things still haven’t changed.