The History of Atlantic City

By Dominic Tesauro

Fannie Lou Hamer, a member and leader of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party addresses the credentials committee at the 1964 Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City on August 22, 1964. (Photo/File: AP)

Atlantic City has a rich, extraordinary history and foundation unseen by tourists who just see casinos, dirt and muck. Is that just what they see or is that what the city really has become? The side of the story that often goes unheard through the sound of slot machines and dead dreams is a story of tradition and resiliency, and a fight against discrimination and to keep tradition alive. That story is “Our Side: The other Atlantic City.” The history of the city is indeed something to behold, and holds many African American and civil rights achievements.

Before Atlantic City became one of the casino capitals of America, it was the home to many great moments in African American civil rights history. Fannie Lou Hamer worked as a sharecropper in Mississippi before the plantation fired her for registering to vote. She fought in Atlantic City at the 1964 Democratic National Convention.  Hamer participated in the integrated Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party that challenged the seating of the all-white Mississippi delegation. She was chosen to speak and spoke out against injustices that she saw and experienced during her time in the South. Her strong voice and demeanor leant a voice to all African Americans around the world, all heard from Hamer in Atlantic City.

This takes us to another civil rights event that took place in Atlantic City, the 1968 Miss America Pageant. The Miss America Pageant received criticism for being too biased towards white people and excluding Native American, Black, and Hispanic women. The Miss America Pageant was attacked across the country, especially in 1968 Atlantic City. Upon landing in Atlantic City, women’s liberation protestors handed out leaflets stating “No More Miss America!” and dismissed the pageant as “Racism with Roses.” The idea that beauty standards “enslaved” women also upset feminists (Welch, 2016). These protests that took place in Atlantic City spearheaded a movement against the pageant, and the legacy lives on today. Jewish, Black, and even deaf contestants have won the competition, which demonstrates great diversity. The protest that took place in Atlantic City contributed to Civil Rights Movement and had a key role in aiding the feminist movement in the 1960s.

A police officer and protesters during an Atlantic City protest against the Miss America Pageant in 1968. (Photo: Alix Kates Shulman papers, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University)

These moments in time show that Atlantic City goes beyond the dirt and muck we talked about earlier, and the great history of civil rights in the city shows that it holds more value than a city to go and spend in blindly. Go visit the Civil Rights Garden. Built 15 years ago between the Carnegie Center and a cash-for-gold store on Dr. Martin Luther King Boulevard, the park showcases the long journey of African Americans achieving freedoms and civil rights.

The city’s civil rights history is something that should hold great importance to young people in the city and people traveling into the city. Glitz and glamour should not dictate the view of Atlantic City. The people who have struggled in this city for the rights of their people deserve to have their voices heard and remembered. If it takes all of us to remember the achievements, so be it. Believe that there is hope that we can still achieve great things. I really don’t know it’s the tourist’s fault that they don’t know about our history. Let’s honor our past up front and center.