For Activist Ned Coll, 'Doing The Right Thing' Got Stuck On Confrontation
July 26, 2009
For those who came of age in Connecticut in the late '60s, reports that Ned Coll had been arrested twice in the same week evoked profoundly mixed emotions.
Depending on a person's political viewpoint, Edward T. "Ned" Coll was the gadfly activist who buzzed annoyingly, inspiringly and often both across Connecticut's racial landscape during troubled times. It was an altercation on an Old Lyme beach between Ned Coll and my father in the early '70s that taught no matter how much you wanted to do the "right thing," it was often hard to know just what that was.
Last week, Coll was charged in two incidents in Hartford, confrontations that escalated into charges of breach of peace and trespass. Both seemed acts of personal anger and frustration, suggesting that, at 69, Ned Coll had become a caricature, a slightly sad reflection of a man who had once been a leader in the fight for equality when race relations was the state's most fraught issue.
Issues of race and poverty in Connecticut have changed dramatically since the mid-'60s when Coll, a young, Jesuit-educated Hartfordite, followed the path least taken, foregoing a career in insurance and taking Jack Kennedy at his inaugural word that the torch had been passed to a new generation.
Coll hoisted that torch with vigor, zealously lighting up a Connecticut not necessarily prepared for his message of racial and social equality. By 1971, Coll's Revitalization Corps operated in nine cities, a "Domestic Peace Corps," he called it, acting to improve the lives of the urban poor. By the early '70s, Coll was singled out by Time magazine, and seemed to have a bright political future.
The trouble was that Coll was too much the firebrand, often obdurate, never learning to pull a punch or find common ground with "the enemy," a prerequisite to a career in clannish Connecticut politics. He seemed to believe that getting into the face of "The Man" was an act worthwhile for its own sake.
So Coll became known for taking buses full of city kids, driving to the Connecticut shore and dropping the kids off at various private beaches. Perplexed homeowners would be left to deal with an unexpected flock of kids at the threat of being branded racist by Coll and the attendant media.
These beachfront confrontations were regular occurrences during the simmering summer of 1971. Vacationers along the Connecticut coast found the real world intruding. There was a predictable sensitivity among property owners, in part because many beach associations had been established to enforce exclusionary bylaws. Traveling east past Old Lyme's Black Hall River, for example, you would pass Polish, Italian, Jewish, Irish and WASP beaches, which, into the '70s, was simply an accepted way of life.
Here, the story gets personal. My dad, Len Rapaport, had inherited several cottages at Old Colony, Old Lyme's Jewish beach. In the late '60s, with ethnic barriers crumbling, Dad sold them and bought a cottage at Old Lyme Shores, the Irish Catholic beach. Dad didn't mind his pioneering status. He had always been a bit of a rabble-rouser — a union painting contractor, he had threatened to sue the AFL-CIO painters' local in Hartford to end its de facto ban on African Americans in apprenticeship programs.
That July day, when Coll came to Old Lyme Shores, might have gone easier if he had called ahead. Instead, presented with a fait accompli, and with dozens of unattended kids at risk, owners got angry. Coll got angrier. An increasingly uncivil exchange broke out on the beach, with Coll finally poking his finger at Dad and screaming at him, "You're just an Irish Catholic bigot!" It was both wrong and funny.
The confrontation had an unintended effect. It so endeared Dad to the Irish neighbors that he was elected to the beach board, with the story told for years afterward. It was not my happiest time. Home for the summer, from an upstate New York college in the midst of its own radical meltdown, I wasn't sure which way to bend. In the end, blood proved to be thicker than political doctrine, no matter how enlightened.
Dad died in 1989, and today, if you can afford to buy a cottage at any of Old Lyme's beaches, you will not be excluded because of race or religion. Life has moved along, but it seems, sadly, that Ned Coll has not. That is a shame, because his victories are today our victories, ones that we should be celebrating together.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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