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From the back seat to the oval office

It was after dinner but too early for bed when a patrol car first led the motorcade into Harlem, driving over a dirt road that has long since been paved and named Canal Street. With no neighborhood park, children played in the dusty yards, and the procession of cars filled with men in white sheets looked so strange to them that some of the younger ones mistook it for a celebration.

"We didn't know what was going on - we thought the U.S. had won another war," recalled Alston "Cup" Taylor, who was 8 at the time. Then he saw the flash of a gun barrel through a car window, and his grandfather called him inside.

The war was not won, but only in its early stages that August night in 1950 when the Ku Klux Klan launched its attack on Myrtle Beach. The long battle over desegregation would take decades, and while the Klan incident may have been the bloodiest moment locally, day-to-day life was so restrictive that many black people of that generation are still stunned to see a black president elected, an absolute impossibility of their youth turned into a reality in their old age.

"When I try to share that with kids, they look at me like, 'You've got to be kidding,'" said 62-year-old Tyrone Lewis, a teacher.

Among the iconic images of segregation's long reign are separate water fountains and separate bus seats, all of which were just as prevalent in Myrtle Beach.

"There was just that one back seat for blacks, and when that got full, you just had to stand up," said 75-year-old Mary Canty.

"They would get on you bad about drinking out of the wrong fountain," Taylor said.

Black people made up the service class for the Grand Strand's resorts, and although they cooked the food, served it and washed the dishes, they were not allowed in as customers. If a restaurant served black people at all, it was through a door in the back.

"We serve colored," reads a sign in the Colored School Museum in Myrtle Beach. "Take out only."

But the broadest symbol of segregation in Myrtle Beach was the beach itself. Black people were not allowed on the oceanfront unless they were working, and even Ocean Boulevard along the beach was completely off limits.

The only time a black woman might step into the Atlantic Ocean in Myrtle Beach was if she had a child by the hand - not her own child, of course, but a white child for whom she was caring, Canty said. Even then, the black woman could not wear any kind of swimming clothes, or even disrobe: She had to wade in fully dressed.

No one tested that unwritten law, as far as Canty could remember.

"They would be put in jail," Canty said. "I just pray and believe in my heart that they wouldn't beat them or anything, but they certainly would have been jailed.

"We knew our boundaries and we followed them to the letter. We didn't want problems for our families. We knew our place and we stayed in it."

One of the bolder couples was Roddy and Fannie Brown. Fannie moved to the area in 1965 after college at Winston-Salem State, where she marched in support of the 1964 Greensboro sit-ins and endured beatings by police billy clubs.

"It seems they would do things to intimidate you, so you would rebel, but we took what

they gave us," Fannie Brown said of the police officers there. "I've gotten whacks across my shoulders, but so did 100,000 others, so it wasn't really a big thing."

Roddy was born in Pawleys Island, moved to Myrtle Beach when he was 10, and was eager to impress Fannie with both his black-and-white 1957 Chevrolet and his daring. Together, they would try to slip the car onto Ocean Boulevard, just to see what the white people were doing. The trips would end when bottles started being thrown at the car.

"We didn't quite make it," Fannie Brown said. "Somebody would always see us."

Because their service-industry jobs kept blacks in such close contact with Myrtle Beach whites, some interracial friendships naturally overcame the artificial boundaries set by society. One spot where the races felt the least separation was Charlie Fitzgerald's Whispering Pines nightclub on Carver Street, where musical talent such as Fats Domino often played and whites and blacks both attended - although they had separate dance floors.

That interaction was what most likely drew the attention of the Ku Klux Klan, writes historian Barbara Stokes in "Myrtle Beach: A History, 1900-1980." In 1950, Horry County was a staging ground for the Klan, as Grand Dragon Thomas Hamilton used a strong S.C. base and the estimated 3,500 Horry County members to launch incursions into North Carolina.

The sight of the Klan's 20-car procession through Myrtle Beach's black neighborhoods is still a vivid memory for those who saw it. After his grandfather called him inside, Taylor remembers seeing the older men of the neighborhood arming themselves in case the Klan returned.

After parading through Myrtle Beach, the Klansmen made their way up to Atlantic Beach, but the black businessmen who owned it protested to the sheriff. Their beach was a model of segregation, they said, a peaceful place that helped maintain the order whereby blacks stayed off white beaches, and they should not be punished for staying within those boundaries.

The sheriff apparently agreed and offered Atlantic Beach his protection, Stokes writes, but meanwhile the Klansmen had returned to Myrtle Beach, this time directly targeting Fitzgerald's Whispering Pines.

"Upon arriving at Whispering Pines, the white-robed men jumped out of their cars, relieved Fitzgerald of his gun, and threw him in the trunk of one of the cars," Stokes writes. "They then proceeded to shoot up the place, break windows, overturn and smash tables and chairs, and shatter the jukebox."

One of the Klansmen, a 42-year-old Conway police officer named James Daniel Johnson, was killed, and at least two black people were left with serious injuries. The Klan took Fitzgerald into the woods, beat him and cut off his ear, but did not kill him, those who knew Fitzgerald said.

The official fallout was a strange mixture of acceptance and condemnation, Stokes writes. Ten Klansmen, including Hamilton, were arrested on charges of inciting a riot, but they were all eventually cleared.

In the next day's papers, the sheriff said that some of the local Klansmen had been misled into violence by their Grand Dragon, and noted that he himself had advised Fitzgerald that the racial mixing in his club was "not good policy." Myrtle Beach city leaders, however, condemned the attack outright, perhaps ever mindful of what reports of violence might do to the tourism trade.

In the black community, what had always seemed a distant threat had suddenly become a real danger.

"You were fearful that it would happen in your neighborhood," said Roddy Brown. "You're talking about shooting, people running and screaming, and you wonder what it was all about."

Even though the Klan of that era would never return to Myrtle Beach, the segregation persisted. Myrtle Beach State Park was the site of an integration battle that in 1963 led the state to close all its parks for a year to avoid integration. Even after the Voting Rights Act, it was not until the late 1970s and early 1980s that black leaders were elected to area councils.

Looking back, the survivors of that era almost universally say they would never have believed in the mid-1960s that a black man named Barack Obama would be elected president 40 years later, bolstered by the votes of 45 percent of white Americans.

"That would have almost seemed an impossibility, too remote, with the mindset of the time," said Roddy Brown.

Bennie Swans, an activist from Philadelphia who moved to Myrtle Beach about five years ago, said that in the 1960s he was so convinced that the racial conflict was going to escalate into an armed struggle that he enlisted in the Army and went to Vietnam to be prepared. Even as recently as a year ago, Swans said he had little hope Obama would be elected.

"I don't care what you think, racism is alive and well in America, and I thought that could never happen," Swans said. "I am so glad I have had to regret my words. ... It's a real tribute to America's promise becoming true."

Some attribute the world's rapid change to education, both of whites and blacks. Others point to a younger generation now far less preoccupied by race. Most, however, find it difficult to explain what they expect to see with Tuesday's inauguration ceremony: an official end to the world that was.

"The only thing I can say is, that was God's plan from the beginning," Canty said. "Only by the grace of God - this is something he had in the making. We could not foresee it. We just had to wait until it came to pass."