Security guard Frank Collins confronts NAG protester Marvis Saunders at Glen Echo Amusement Park on June 30, 1960. (Courtesy SFJFF)
Security guard Frank Collins confronts NAG protester Marvis Saunders at Glen Echo Amusement Park on June 30, 1960. (Courtesy SFJFF)

S.F. Jewish Film Festival: ‘Ain’t No Back to a Merry-Go-Round’ revisits first Black-Jewish civil rights protest

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Before King and Heschel marched together in Selma, and before Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner died together in Mississippi, a group of young Black and Jewish activists made a stand against Jim Crow at a segregated amusement park in Maryland.

In the summer of 1960, Howard University students and their white Jewish allies picketed for 10 weeks outside Glen Echo Amusement Park in Montgomery County. Theirs is thought to be the first organized interracial civil rights protest in U.S. history, yet most popular accounts of Black-Jewish collaboration during the Civil Rights Movement fail to mention it.

“Ain’t No Back to a Merry-Go-Round,” a new documentary screening at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival this month, could fix that. Many of the protesters are still alive and sat for interviews with director Ilana Trachtman, including two Jewish San Franciscans: Nancy Stoller, an emerita sociology professor at UC Santa Cruz, and Vicki Pollack, the founder and director emerita of the Children’s Book Project.

“Glen Echo was the beginning [of] my career as an in-the-street, nonviolent, direct action activist,” Stoller, a Wellesley student whose parents lived near the park, says in the film. “I discovered that your body is the most political instrument you have. You don’t have to wait for other people. You just have to know there’s some injustice right in front of you and stand up and oppose it.”

With its roller coasters, bumper cars and massive swimming pool, Glen Echo Amusement Park was a popular destination for white families in the D.C. area. The children of foreign dignitaries visiting the capital were also welcome inside, including children of color, but security guards kept Black Americans out. The Jewish owners of the park, brothers Abram and Samuel Baker, claimed that they were simply looking out for their economic interests — allowing Black Americans in would drive away white patrons — and that they were not personally racist.

Inspired by the February 1960 sit-in at a Woolworth lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina, Howard students formed the Nonviolent Action Group (NAG) and set their sights on Glen Echo. They organized pickets at the entrance, with activists holding signs reading “Segregation Doesn’t Pay … Why Should You?” and “Stay Outside for a Freedom Ride.” On June 30, five Howard students entered with tickets bought by a white volunteer and held a sit-in on the carousel. The police arrested them for trespassing.

Local union organizers recruited white people to join the NAG campaign, including Jews from nearby Bannockburn. It was the first time many participants befriended members of another race. In addition to the picketing, there was much interracial partying and even some dating that summer. “Sometimes I would picket until really late, go partying and then go straight to work,” Pollack recalls. “It was just what we were doing, because we were 18, 19 years old.”

Despite such camaraderie, the Jewish activists enjoyed a “position of privilege” compared with the Black ones, who were treated more harshly by the police, according to Bannockburn resident Joanne Delaplaine. Still, some local Jews felt threatened when members of the American Nazi Party started holding counterprotests outside the park.

“The Brownshirts showed up,” Madeline Sigel, another Bannockburn resident and a Holocaust refugee from Vienna, says in the film. “The thought that I would be picketing while there are these people here from whom I fled — it was too much for me.”

The protest outside the park lasted 10 weeks. (Courtesy SFJFF)

Eventually the protest became a cause celebre, and Black union and civil rights leaders including Adam Clayton Powell Jr., Roy Wilkins and A. Philip Randolph joined the picket line. Sammy Davis Jr., who converted to Judaism that year, staged a benefit show. 

“This was not a minor part of the Civil Rights Movement,” U.S. Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton, who was also involved with NAG, testifies in the film.

Did the protest succeed? I’ll let festivalgoers learn what happened from the film. But I’ll note that today, Glen Echo Park is an arts and culture center operated by the National Park Service.

“Ain’t No Back to a Merry-Go-Round,” which received a 2022 completion grant from the Jewish Film Institute, introduces viewers to dozens of people connected to the protest, perhaps too many, and takes some unnecessary narrative detours. But there is much to appreciate in this nuanced account of a little-known chapter of civil rights history, including a remarkable piece of color footage.

In it, NAG leader Laurence Henry calmly speaks with a white security guard outside the park. The guard asks Henry, a serious-looking man in a suit and tie who is obviously Black, if he’s “white or colored.” “Am I white or colored?” Henry responds incredulously. Then the guard asks Henry what his race is, to which he replies, “My race? I belong to the human race.” The guard is unmoved. It’s a tidy encapsulation of the absurdity of racial discrimination.

As for the perfectly chosen title, it comes from a 1942 Langston Hughes poem about life for Black people under Jim Crow: “On the bus we’re put in the back — / But there ain’t no back / To a merry-go-round!”

“Ain’t No Back to a Merry-Go-Round” (89 minutes) screens at 1 p.m. Thursday, July 25, at the Vogue Theater in San Francisco, and at 1 p.m. Wednesday, July 31, at the Piedmont Theatre in Oakland.

Andrew Esensten
Andrew Esensten

Andrew Esensten is the culture editor of J. Previously, he was a staff writer for the English-language edition of Haaretz based in Tel Aviv. Follow him on Twitter @esensten.