A sheet proclaiming "Black Lives Matter" hangs on the fence at Lighthouse Beach where previously a towel bearing a symbol of hatred was displayed. Photo by Les Jacobson

By Heidi Randhava

The anti-racism protest and rally that drew about 300 people to Lighthouse Beach from 2-4 p.m. on July 31 was called “No One Is Free Until We Are All Free.” The quote by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was to serve as a reminder that each individual’s well-being is inextricably tied to that of the community

Evanston is a community that prides itself on taking a stand against racism. But Evanston resident and educator LaShandra Smith-Rayfield stood alone when confronting patrons of Lighthouse Beach who hung a Confederate flag beach towel on a fence there two days earlier. She streamed the interaction on Facebook Live, and the video went viral the following day.

The rally, hosted by Evanston organizations including Anti-Racism in Action and Every Single Person Committed to Anti-Racism (Espcar), was held to “protest the complicity of our neighbors,” according to the event description.

Many Evanston beachgoers walked right by the prominently displayed image of a flag that symbolizes the secession movement created by the Confederacy for perpetuation of white supremacy. In 1860, South Carolina seceded from the United States because of, as the declaration said, “increasing hostility on the part of the non-slaveholding States to the institution of slavery.”

Yet no one asked the man who hung the flag on the City fence to remove it until Ms. Smith-Rayfield did so.

 “When I got here on Wednesday, before I got to the beach, you could see the flag hanging on the fence,” Ms. Smith-Rayfield told protesters who gathered on the lawn outside the beach. Evanston Public Library gave away representative books and Art Maker’s Outpost provided supplies for signs.

Anti-Racism in Action founder Fuschia Winston-Rodriguez and other organizers including Khari Rayfield, Ms. Smith-Rayfield’s daughter, also spoke at the rally.

 Ms. Smith-Rayfield said she had hoped the photo of the flag posted on social media two days earlier was fake.

“I really was coming out here to prove Mayor Hagerty right,” said Ms. Smith-Rayfield.

The mayor, who attended the protest, had initially posted on social media that the story was “fake” news after he went to the beach and did not see the flag on the part of the fence where he thought the photo was taken. His post said that he went to the beach after several residents called 311 and one resident emailed him about the flag.

In a second post, Mayor Hagerty apologized for the error, and for not looking further along the fence for the flag. “Let me be clear, any symbols of hate, superiority, or white nationalism are not welcome in Evanston,” wrote the Mayor in his post. He has applauded Ms. Smith-Rayfield for speaking out against an image that he said is “hateful, harmful and offensive.”

In the video streamed by Ms. Smith-Rayfield, she confronted the man who hung the towel, telling him that the flag is “a symbol of hate.” Before leaving the beach, she even offered $20 in exchange for the towel, but her offer was declined.

The Confederate flag towel was eventually removed by the group that sat in front of it. Ms. Smith-Rayfield said she calculated that it had been on display for at least an hour before she arrived, based on the time she first saw it on social media.

“The flag drew attention. But apparently it wasn’t a problem to anyone before I arrived. And that is the problem,” said Ms. Smith-Rayfield, who moved back to Evanston “a few years ago, trying to provide a safe, small community-type feel for my kids. Never did I ever think that type of flag would be hung on a beach in this town.”

She spoke passionately and with emotion, sharing her knowledge as an educator, and her experiences as a Black woman and a Black American.

“In my video, you saw folks walking on past it. …  I will tell you, as your sister and as your neighbor, if someone were to hang a swastika … I would be the first one in line to defend you. … If people say, ‘Why did you come down to the beach?’ it’s because I was taught to stand for something. I’m not a hero to anybody. What I am is a mother. What I am is a teacher … but it’s not my job to educate you. As my sister, Fuschia [Winston-Rodriguez] said, ‘Google it … do the work, have the conversations,’” said Ms. Smith-Rayfield.

She said she took the link to the video down to prevent Internet trolls. It has been uploaded to YouTube, and is still available to those who are part of anti-racist organizations in Evanston. She had a few simple requests for folks who are not people of color who attended the rally, or who were watching online.

“Before I get off this mic, I want you all to learn to take your guidance from those who have been impacted by this racism – to step on and squash your first inclination to prove that you are not racist.

“I need you all to choose to be brave for 30 seconds at a time,” said Ms. Smith-Rayfield. She addressed the issue of freedom of speech, and the concern voiced by some people that confronting the beach patrons who displayed the image of the flag could have sparked a violent response.

“They do have the right to freedom of expression and freedom of speech. … So does everybody else in this crowd. So, if you’re brave for 30 seconds, and you say, ‘You’re not welcome here with that sign of hate. Take it down, you can stay. If you can’t, then leave.’ That’s actually less than 30 seconds. If you say those words, they’re your freedom. Are they going to attack you for that? Probably not. They’ll probably be shocked by your words. But if you take those 30 seconds, and the person next to you takes those 30 seconds … it becomes a crescendo of ‘You are not welcome here. If you want to fly your flag … your symbols of hate, then purchase a private pool,’” said Ms. Smith-Rayfield.

Khari Rayfield, 19, said there have been many comments about her mother, “some full of support … and others are like ‘Why didn’t she just mind her own business? Why didn’t she just stay at home? Why is there always an angry Black woman?’ But the question is, Why was there no one there to do anything about this flag? … On a beach full of bodies, in a liberal, quote unquote ‘hate has no home here’ suburb, why is it necessary for her to leave her job, her home … to go and make this community, our community, a better place, not just for her kids, but for everyone’s children?”

“There are a lot of people on the Internet saying that flag stands for southern pride. … The people who carry that flag carry disdain for the African American community, for the Latinx community, for the LGBTQ-plus community, for the immigrant community, for the Jewish community, the Muslim community and anyone else who doesn’t abide by their ideologies. Everyone in Evanston should be enraged, whether it’s a flag, or a tie, or a bumper sticker or a T-shirt. … This is not a political fight. It’s a fight for your fellow Americans, your fellow human beings,” said Ms. Rayfield.

When the speakers concluded, organizers led protesters onto the beach in groups to maintain social distancing. Marchers chanted, “Black lives matter, Black joy matters, Black safety matters, Black peace matters.”

People of all ages attended the rally. Five friends who came together talked with the RoundTable at the close of the event. They all said they had seen the video livestreamed by Ms. Smith-Rayfield on Facebook.

“I was really upset by it and I wanted to show up to support her,” said Riley Hughes.

Madison Dempster is her neighbor. “I texted Riley and said, ‘Did you see the Lighthouse video?’ and she said, ‘Yes, there’s a protest,’ and I said, ‘Okay, when are we going?’”

Neha Singh reached out to her friends after seeing the social media post. “I know this beach pretty well. Honestly, it didn’t surprise me too much,” said Ms. Singh.

“Morally, I came because it’s not fair that I should live somewhere and not feel welcome,” said Olivia Nicholson. The four women all graduated from Evanston Township High School in recent years.

Lighthouse Beach, located at Sheridan Road and Central Street, is viewed by some as unwelcoming to Evanston’s non-white residents. Like all Evanston beaches, beach tokens or daily fees are required for admittance.

This spring, Evanston Fight for Black Lives started a petition to Mayor Hagerty and City Council to make Evanston beaches “open and free to all people with the goal of racial equity at the forefront.”

James Heard, who works in the Athletic Department at ETHS, said he sent the video to family and friends in the area to raise their awareness of what had happened at the beach.

“I think the main reason why I was so upset was because of the lack of response from the people on the beach, and the fact that a person had to come out there,” said Mr. Heard.

The flag on the towel that was displayed at the beach is the most recognizable symbol of the Confederacy. Some Evanstonians gained new knowledge about its place in history during Evanston’s 2020 Juneteenth celebrations, hosted by Evanston Present and Future. The annual holiday commemorates the effective end of slavery in the United States on June 19, 1865, when America’s remaining slaves in Texas were finally informed of their freedom – two months after Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox, Va.

A Bill was passed on July 10, 2015 to remove the Confederate flag from the State House grounds in Columbia, S. Car. Although the nation’s largest retailers no longer sell merchandise tied to the flag, sales of these items remain steady.

Author and historian Ta-Nehisi Coates questioned the content of the word “heritage” when it is invoked by those who say they respect or even revere the flag, in his article, “What This Cruel War Was Over,” published in The Atlantic on June 22, 2015.

“The confederate flag is directly tied to the Confederate cause, and the Confederate cause was white supremacy. This claim is not the result of revisionism. It does not require reading between the lines. It is the plain meaning of the words of those who bore the Confederate flag across history,” wrote Mr. Coates.

Ms. Smith-Rayfield succinctly described the Confederate battle flag simply as “a symbol of hate” – four words to consider when deciding to “be brave for 30 seconds at a time” and speak up – or remain silent – when confronted with hateful or hurtful symbols, words or actions.

Heidi Randhava

Heidi Randhava is an award winning reporter who has a deep commitment to community engagement and service. She has written for the Evanston RoundTable since 2016.