The conscience of Ned Coll
Activist Ned Coll, who made himself the lightning rod of the inflammatory issue of public access to Long Island Sound versus the interests of shoreline towns and property owners, died this week at the age of 82.
Beach access was only one of Coll’s projects, and when the state Supreme Court told shoreline towns in 2001 that they could not prohibit public access to the beachfront, the winning case was brought by someone else. But Ned Coll had started the conversation with his bus and boat trips to the beaches for urban Connecticut children. His name became a household word, both in the state and beyond.
And yet, the fight he started in 1972 is not over. Exclusion of Connecticut residents from access that was confirmed for all by the state’s highest court continues. Variations of the resistance from towns and property owners continue to make it to courts and to the legislature -- for example, re-examining exactly what access was meant to be granted in old deeds or how prohibitively a municipality can charge out-of-towners to pass through the gates.
It happened that Coll’s death on Dec. 17 came a few days after the state Appellate Court announced it would hear arguments about reconsidering the recent decision of a three-judge panel in a matter that pits a private beach association in Old Lyme against a non-member claiming the right to use the association’s deeded beach.
Coll would hardly have been surprised to hear yet another installment in the saga.
Edward T. Coll was not long out of Fairfield University and working at a Hartford insurance company when President John F. Kennedy died by assassination in 1963. As Tom Condon recounted for The Connecticut Mirror, Coll left the insurance company and formed an anti-poverty and social justice agency, The Revitalization Corps, in memory of the late president. The corps took a practical approach, somewhat like a localized Peace Corps. Volunteers would collect food, provide tutoring, help with fuel and jobs, confront crime.
The Revitalization Corps operated independently of federal money, however, and as Condon recollects, its style appealed to the idealistic and increasingly iconoclastic ‘60s. Chapters opened in other cities after Hartford. Coll led with an exhibitionist charisma that succeeded in making him a constantly renewable news item -- as he clearly intended.
His overarching legacy, however, was his conscience. In his later years Coll may have expended more effort on showmanship than some of his early allies could comfortably endorse, but he never ceased holding up to public view the stark contrast between the lives of urban Blacks and suburban white people in Connecticut.
Over the decades, The Day, as a shoreline news organization covering a half dozen Long Island Sound towns, reported on Ned Coll’s marches, demonstrations, beach visits and run-ins with local law enforcement. In editorials, the newspaper frequently cited the basic righteousness of his calling out racism and social injustice.
Those issues outlasted Coll’s health and ability to function as an activist. When he retired from public protests, there still were -- and are -- numerous instances to cite. The capacity for towns, private clubs and associations for enforcing exclusionary policies is demonstrably resilient.
The clearest example of finding ways not to do the right thing without technically defying the state Supreme Court has been the legal maneuvering to keep outsiders off the beaches and out of the way. There have been a few bright spots, such as the public boardwalk along Niantic Bay erected by the town of East Lyme. But even East Lyme drew the line against out-of-towners on the beach by joining Waterford, Groton and other towns in charging them fees for parking or passes that approach the cost of joining a private beach -- if a household could even get itself invited to do so.
So it continues to be true that most of the people on town beaches are white and most of the beach opportunities for people of color are at state parks and Ocean Beach Park in New London. Taxpayers in a town should perhaps get a break on fees in recognition that some percentage of their tax dollars supports beach maintenance. But if the law in Connecticut is to be fairly observed, Ned Coll was right, a half-century ago and counting: Make the beaches accessible to all.