Atlantic Beach once thrived as S.C.’s only black-friendly beach, now

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Atlantic Beach is an anachronism and an anomaly. And it has become a major embarrassment and law enforcement problem for the beach communities along South Carolina’s fabled Grand Strand. Today it is better known for the rowdy and murderous biker rally that originated there than for its past as a celebrated African-American tourist spot.

A remnant of the Jim Crow era, Atlantic Beach was founded in the 1930s by a small group of black businesspeople and professionals as a refuge from the harshly segregated world around them. The Black Pearl, as it was called, flourished throughout the 1940s and 1950s. Blacks from across the eastern United States vacationed there. On summer weekends, farm workers came from local tobacco fields by the truckload. Buses brought clubs and church congregations. And, of course, it was the playground of domestics who worked in area hotels and homes.

Black entertainers playing the many white beach clubs along the Grand Strand were barred from white hotels. After performing before an all-white audience, they headed to Atlantic Beach — often followed by white revelers — where they put on late-night shows at the Cotton Club, the Black Magic Club, the Hawk’s Nest, or one of the other legendary cabarets. Count Basie, Ray Charles, Billie Holiday, James Brown, The Drifters, Martha and the Vandellas, The Tams, Bo Diddley, and Otis Redding all left memories in Atlantic Beach.

By the time it was incorporated in 1966, Atlantic Beach had seen its best days. Legal segregation ended in 1964, and black tourists were able to enjoy more comfort and variety in the newly integrated hotels and restaurants beyond the little town.

In 1968, when the towns of Windy Hill Beach, Crescent Beach, Ocean Drive Beach, and Cherry Grove Beach consolidated to form North Myrtle Beach, Atlantic Beach chose not to join them. The decision was a result of generations of hostility and distrust. As the mayor Joe Montgomery told Myrtle Beach’s Sun News in 1987, “This is a gold mine. But we want to maintain our heritage and our identity and we want a certain amount of control. We want to learn from mistakes that were made in other places like Hilton Head.”

Atlantic Beach had no reason to trust its neighbors. White property owners would run ropes into the surf on either side of the town with signs warning blacks to stay off their beach. “Even the ocean is segregated,” residents used to say. Ocean Boulevard still bears the scars of that segregation. Running eight miles from one end of North Myrtle Beach to the other, it stops abruptly at the city limits of Atlantic Beach. Fences and hedges block the road, as visually and spiritually ugly as the Berlin Wall.

Today, Atlantic Beach is one of the smallest and poorest municipalities in the state. With three blocks of oceanfront and 350 permanent residents, it occupies 128 acres of dilapidation and decay in the midst of the multibillion-dollar phenomenon called the Grand Strand. The gold mine Mayor Montgomery promised never materialized. Over the years, several attempts by outsiders to develop the tiny town collapsed in acrimony because the residents did not trust the white businesspeople who were calling the shots. The average per capita income in Atlantic Beach today is $12,492. The municipal debt is $787,000. Some suggested that the state might mercifully put the town out of its misery by revoking its charter.

Atlantic Beach is wrestling with the same issues black municipalities all over the country are facing: crime, corruption, declining population, and a lack of resources to maintain basic civic services. In recent years the town has seen a parade of mayors, council members, town administrators, and police officers go to jail on charges ranging from bribery, election fraud, and drug distribution to driving under the influence.

In May 2013, Mayor Retha Pierce was booked into jail on a charge of third-degree assault and battery against a town council member. It was only Pierce’s latest run-in with the law. As The Sun News reported, she had faced a number of charges over the years, including driving under the influence, resisting arrest, trespassing, and hit-and-run.

After the Pierce arrest, The Sun News editorialized, “We’ve written so many times about the leadership woes of Atlantic Beach over the years that frankly it’s becoming hard to get worked up about the latest indiscretion by Pierce or her compatriots in town … There seems little prospect of the town fixing its own problems. Outside help is sorely needed.”

In the late 1970s, some Atlantic Beach leaders struck upon the idea of a bike festival as a means to bring more business to the declining town and more money to the depleted municipal coffers. The date chosen was the Memorial Day weekend, right on the heels of the well established Harley-Davidson Rally, which had gathered in Myrtle Beach since the 1940s.

The Atlantic Beach Bikefest started small in 1980, but grew rapidly. As far as Bikefest organizers were concerned, the event was an enormous success right from the start. Revelers filled the town’s few motels and restaurants. Town Hall sold permits to food and merchandise vendors. But very quickly, the rally spilled out far beyond the narrow confines of the tiny town, soon rivaling Myrtle Beach’s Harley-Davidson rally in numbers, noise, rowdiness, and violence. These days, tens of thousands of black bikers descend upon the Grand Strand for what is more commonly called Black Bike Week, accompanied by hundreds of thousands of friends, fans, and followers who are along for the party.

During Black Bike Week today, high-pitched, Asian-built motorcycles fill the streets and roads from one end of the Grand Strand to the other, and raucous partying rages along Ocean Boulevard from noon till well past midnight for the four long days of the Memorial Day weekend. And this is the heart of the great kulturkampf over Black Bike Week.

Despite its reputation, Myrtle Beach is intensely Baptist, politically conservative, and very, very white; more than 90 percent of its population is Caucasian. For many whites in Myrtle, the fear of black people takes two distinct scenarios — finding themselves outnumbered by black people and finding themselves confronted by black culture. Black Bike Week offers plenty of both. With hundreds of thousands of African Americans on the Grand Strand, blacks become the majority on this little strip of beach for nearly a week each and every year. And they bring with them cultural differences that some whites find incomprehensible, even terrifying. For these frightened folks, there’s something about vast reaches of bare black flesh, pulsating hip-hop music, and dancing bodies that is too much for their frail psyches to handle.

By the 1990s, white politicians were demagoguing the Black Bike Week, and white business leaders called for shutting it down. Some wanted to use the National Guard to control the event. There were differences between the Harley-Davidson Rally and the Atlantic Beach Bikefest, to be sure. Both were rowdy, but the Harley crowd was older, more subdued. Black Bike Week riders and their friends were almost all in their 20s. And unlike the Harley-Davidson Rally, the black bikefest resisted all efforts to organize it, to channel it into activities and venues that would remove some of the bike traffic from the roads.

As Atlantic Beach Bikefest became bigger and rowdier, some local businesses responded by closing over Memorial Day weekend. To manage the extraordinary number of motorcycles during Black Bike Week, Myrtle Beach police experimented with different ways of routing and controlling traffic on Ocean Boulevard.

In 2003, a group of black bikers, along with the South Carolina chapter of the NAACP, sued the City of Myrtle Beach and a number of restaurants for discrimination. Three years later, the NAACP triumphed in every federal discrimination suit it brought against businesses and the City of Myrtle Beach.

The 2008 bike rallies were unusually rowdy, and on the last day of Black Bike Week, a Coastal Carolina University student was shot and killed in a dispute over a parking space. As it turned out, the dispute and killing did not involve any bikers, but coming as it did, with nerves raw and patience exhausted, it provided the catalyst that residents had been waiting for.

Within days, angry citizens descended on Myrtle Beach City Council to demand action against the bike rallies. Over the next year, council passed a number of ordinances aimed at making the Myrtle Beach experience as unpleasant as possible for motorcyclists. These included laws against loitering in downtown parking lots, new restrictions on muffler noise, restrictions on vendors in the city limits, and, most controversial, an ordinance requiring all motorcycle riders to wear helmets.

The City of Myrtle Beach was dragged into court over the new rules and most of them — including the helmet law — were eventually overturned. While Myrtle Beach lost the legal battles, the Harley riders, at the very least, got the message that they were no longer wanted. Their numbers have gone down dramatically in recent years.

But Black Bike Week is another matter. The numbers remain high, and the behavior remains rowdy — and often deadly. In 2013, six bikers were killed in traffic accidents in Horry County over the Memorial Day weekend, five of them inside Myrtle Beach city limits.

Then came 2014. Three people were killed in a shooting incident at an Ocean Boulevard hotel during the Atlantic Beach Bikefest. Five were wounded in four other shooting incidents.

The news made headlines across the nation and brought Gov. Nikki Haley to Horry County on May 30. Citing damage to the state’s reputation and tourism, Haley declared, “It is time for Bikefest to come to an end, and that is the way that I am going to talk to the elected officials of Atlantic Beach.” On July 29, Haley visited Atlantic Beach to deliver that message directly to town council. No one was listening.

Days later, Duane Parrish, director of the S.C. Department of Parks, Recreation, and Tourism, publicly offered Atlantic Beach state money for promotion and construction if it would call off the annual bikefest. But there was still no interest from the council or mayor.

The fact is that the $60,000 Atlantic Beach collects during Black Bike Week represents more than 10 percent of the town’s budget. The problems created by the huge rally of up to 500,000 young bikers and partiers are not Atlantic Beach’s problems. The shootings and wrecks and mayhem take place in other municipalities and other parts of the county. And even if Atlantic Beach announced that the 2015 bikefest was canceled, it seems unlikely that half a million partiers would stay home and watch television over the next Memorial Day weekend. They would come to the Grand Strand — with or without Atlantic Beach’s blessing.

While the governor’s office did not return my call for a comment, Atlantic Beach Mayor Jake Evans was happy to share his thoughts.

He called the governor’s involvement in the Black Bike Week controversy “just politics” in an election year and pointed out that people are shot and killed in Myrtle Beach fairly frequently — including one since the recent bikefest.

“We didn’t have any problems in Atlantic Beach,” he said. “Everybody abides by the laws. Why can’t they do the same in Myrtle Beach?”

Asked if he thought Bikefest would still be around in five years, he said, “Yeah, it’ll still be here.”

Will Moredock is the author of Banana Republic Revisited: 75 Years of Madness, Mayhem and Minigolf in Myrtle Beach.