Federal Court Orders Equal Treatment For Black Tourists

On May 9th, The U.S. District Court in South Carolina agreed with the NAACP that the City of Myrtle Beach must stop discriminating against African American motorcyclists during their annual meeting in the South Carolina beach city during the Memorial Day weekend. It is the only weekend each year when the majority of tourists in the City are African American and the only weekend each year when the City implements a restrictive traffic plan requiring all traffic to travel one-way for 60 blocks.

The Court granted the plaintiffs' motion for a preliminary injunction to stop the city from implementing a restrictive one-way traffic pattern along a major city boulevard during "Black Bike Week" unless they do the same thing during a predominately white annual motorcycle event called "Harley Week." The city is free to implement one-way, two-way or another traffic pattern, "but only if implemented for both events," the Court said.

Angela Ciccolo, NAACP Interim General Counsel, said: "This decision is significant. As the Court pointed out, granting a preliminary injunction is an extraordinary remedy. The NAACP has said all along that African Americans deserve equal treatment and equal protection under the law. We are delighted that the Court agrees and has ordered the City of Myrtle Beach to change its ways and stop discriminating against African American tourists visiting South Carolina."

Richard Ritter, Staff Attorney, for the Washington Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights, said: "The Washington Lawyers' Committee is enormously pleased with this decision. The Court has sent a clear message to the City of Myrtle Beach that its practices in regard to Black Bike Week must change."

Each year, in May, two large motorcycle rallies are held in the Myrtle Beach area. In mid-May, thousands of predominately white motorcyclists and tourists come to Myrtle Beach for an event known as "Harley Week." A week later, over Memorial Day weekend, a similar number of black tourists attend a similar motorcycle rally in the Myrtle Beach area, known as "Black Bike Week." The treatment of the tourists for each event is starkly different.

The white Harley Week tourists are wholeheartedly welcomed by the Myrtle Beach government, businesses, and community leaders. When the black tourists arrive, restaurants close, hotels implement special policies, and the City restricts travel along the main drag of Myrtle Beach — Ocean Boulevard, which is converted into an oppressive one-way traffic pattern that restricts traffic with limited exit points. The City's police department also deploys triple the number of police officers to enforce a one-time "zero tolerance" policy aimed at black tourists.

The plaintiffs' motion for a preliminary injunction is the latest court action taken by the Conway (S.C.) Branch of the NAACP and other African American tourists since filing the civil rights lawsuit against the City in 2003. In advance of Memorial Day Weekend in 2005, the motion for preliminary injunction focuses on the traffic pattern along Ocean Boulevard and asks the Court to stop the City from using this restrictive one-way traffic pattern for Memorial Day Weekend.

The city government argued that a more-restrictive traffic pattern is necessary during "Black Bike Week" due to increased traffic gridlock and an increased need for safety, but the Court said the defendants "failed to show that a one-way traffic pattern clearly reduces congestion or is more accessible to emergency vehicles than a two-way traffic pattern."

Myrtle Beach Mayor Mark McBride testified during his deposition that the city "welcomes" white tourists during Harley Week, and tries to "discourage" the Black Bike Week tourists from visiting. McBride said he does not consider the African American tourists to be law-abiding. He testified: "They want to disregard the law and sit on the tops of their car and smoke dope and drink and do whatever they want to and disregard everything." In contrast to the Black Bike Week tourists, McBride testified that "when you tell a group of white youth to behave or you're going to jail, for the most part, they behave…."

Last year, the NAACP also filed several federal civil rights lawsuits against four Myrtle Beach area restaurants accused of discriminating against African American tourists after they closed for business when African American tourists visited Myrtle Beach during Black Bike Week. One of the restaurants, J. Edward's Great Ribs and More, agreed on a settlement that will keep the restaurant open during Black Bike Week. Lawsuits against other area restaurants, Damon's Oceanfront, Damon's Barefoot Landing and Greg Norman's Australian Grille, owned by professional golfer Greg Norman, are still outstanding.

The lawsuit against the City of Myrtle Beach was filed on behalf of the NAACP by the law firms of Steptoe & Johnson, LLP; Derfner, Altman & Wilborn, LLC; and the Washington Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs.

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