Academic journal article The Journal of African American History

Municipal Golf and Civil Rights in the United States, 1910-1965

Academic journal article The Journal of African American History

Municipal Golf and Civil Rights in the United States, 1910-1965

Article excerpt

Early on the morning of 7 December 1955, Dr. George C. Simkins, Jr., an African American dentist from Greensboro, North Carolina, gathered with five of his friends for a regular Wednesday round of golf. Normally the group played public courses open to black golfers, but on this occasion they resolved to visit the Gillespie Park Golf Club, a municipal facility that operated as a private club for white residents who leased the grounds from the town for one dollar annually. Lease agreements such as the one in Greensboro were common in those southern cities that sought to circumvent court orders that outlawed all forms of discrimination in public recreation. When Simkins and his five black companions arrived at the Gillespie Park golf shop, the attendant told them that they could not play because they were not members of the club. Simkins and his friends then left their green fees on the counter and teed off on the first hole. On the fifth hole the course manager, Ernie Edwards, caught up with them and threatened to have them arrested if they did not leave the grounds. When Edwards asked Simkins why he was on the course, he replied, "We're out here for a cause--the cause of democracy. We're taxpayers. This is a city golf course funded by our taxes and we should be allowed to play it." (1) The Simkins party ignored Edwards's curses and warnings and finished nine holes. That evening a black police officer arrested the men and took them to the county jail. The "Greensboro Six" were soon out on bail, having just launched a long battle to desegregate the Gillespie Park course.

Dr. Simkins's crusade to desegregate the Gillespie Park course followed four decades of struggles in several midwestern and southern communities to open municipal golf facilities to African Americans. Ten more years would pass before black players would enjoy equal access to city links throughout the nation. Surprisingly, golf was an early battleground of the Civil Rights Movement in the United States, along with voting rights and equal access to public education, hotels, restaurants, transportation, playgrounds, beaches, and other public accommodations.

This essay has a dual purpose. The first is to discuss the extent of the desegregation of municipal golf courses in the South, including the border states, prior to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The second is to assess the impact of court decisions in general, and U.S. Supreme Court rulings in particular, on the racial integration of these municipal facilities prior to 1964, with special attention paid to the Brown v. the Board of Education decision in 1954. While several scholars have reviewed the major legal cases on racial discrimination at public golf courses during this period, their studies do not fully address the consequences of those court decisions. In African American Golfers During the Jim Crow Era, Marvin P. Dawkins and Graham C. Kinloch provide the most complete discussion of the legal campaign for equal access to public golf courses. They include a brief summary of the tactics employed by opponents to prevent or delay compliance with court orders, but they do not present a detailed account of the direct and indirect effects of those decisions, and especially their varying degrees of implementation by local officials. (2)

Over the past fifteen years Gerald N. Rosenberg and Michael J. Klarman have argued that the Brown decision and other court rulings on the desegregation of public schools resulted in only minor gains in the racial integration of those institutions. Gerald Rosenberg pointed to several constraints on the effectiveness of the Supreme Court and lower courts' rulings, including resistance on the part of southern political leaders and the bureaucratic difficulties of implementing judicial decisions. Rosenberg also doubted that the Brown decision had a major indirect impact on the Civil Rights Movement in general and concluded that dramatic change occurred only when President Lyndon Johnson and the U. …

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