MYRTLE BEACH — Pam Andrews has a front-row seat to one of the biggest conflicts on the Grand Strand.
Since 2015, the city of Myrtle Beach has used a late-night, 23-mile traffic loop to corral bikers during the Memorial Day Bikefest rally. Every year, the leg that leads visitors onto the main strip goes right past Andrews’ house on 29th Avenue North.
“They sit for so long that their bikes overheat. We help fix them,” said Andrews, whose husband and neighbor are both mechanics. “We just sit out here, party with them, sell them water.”
It’s a tiring route for the hundreds of thousands of revelers that descend on the Grand Strand for the rally, also known as Black Bike Week because the participants are almost entirely African-American.
It’s also the center of a new federal lawsuit filed last month by the NAACP, which alleges that the traffic pattern is discriminatory because it is not in place during a largely white Harley-Davidson event the week before.
“The City’s motivation for the policies is clear: it seeks to make Black Bike Week sufficiently unpleasant for the mostly African-American motorcyclists that they stop attending and the event ceases to exist,” reads the complaint, filed in U.S. District Court in Florence.
Myrtle Beach has been sued by the group before. But over the years, the NAACP has taken local businesses to task, too, as it argued in court that restaurants and hotels were not providing equal accommodations to the Bikefest crowd.
In 2004, the Conway branch of the NAACP settled with the Yachtsman Resort Hotel, entering an agreement to train its employees against discrimination after Bikefest attendees alleged the hotel made them sign complicated contracts with dozens of rules. The agreement was in effect until 2008.
In 2006, the NAACP settled with Myrtle Beach restaurant chain Damon’s Grill for $125,000 and a two-year promise to stay open during the weekend and post signs welcoming bikers.
Activists argue that public accommodations, even in private businesses, are owed to people of all races. The specter of a lawsuit has still made some business owners resentful of an annual event that was already unpopular.
“No group or entity should be able to tell me when I can open and close up my private business,” said Jimmy Waldorf, who runs Fun Plaza Arcade on Ocean Boulevard.
Managing the crowds
Bikefest began as a festival in Atlantic Beach, the only section of the Grand Strand where black vacationers were allowed on the sand during the Jim Crow era.
It started out small, and it wasn’t until 1997 that a crush of hundreds of thousands of people came to Myrtle Beach. Many officials connect that year with the end of Freaknik, a street festival of black youth in Atlanta that had waned as the city cracked down with more police and changed traffic patterns.
In Myrtle Beach, the city was unprepared. Parties popped up in parking lots. Trash stacked in the streets. Police and firefighters couldn’t respond to calls because of gridlock.
And unlike with the Harley-Davidson rally, there was no central leader to contact.
“There is no organizing committee and there is no organization. To me, it’s kind of, ‘Let’s have a street party,’ and everybody shows up,” said former City Councilman Chuck Martino.
That year eventually led to a traffic plan in the early 2000s that forced all the vehicles on Ocean Boulevard southbound for 4 miles. But the NAACP won an injunction, and the two parties eventually settled a lawsuit in 2006.
That settlement, which expired in 2010, set out guidelines for police behavior. For a time, Myrtle Beach used the altered Ocean Boulevard traffic pattern during both Bikefest and Harley week.
Myrtle Beach did not admit in the settlement that it had discriminated against Bikefest visitors.
A tale of two rallies
Today, Bikefest and Harley week are different in many ways.
The Harley riders are older and attend events at a cluster of bars in the Murrells Inlet area. The center of Bikefest, by contrast, is on the streets in downtown Myrtle Beach — young riders roll in to see and be seen.
Both events can be overwhelming for residents.
“When you hear motorcycles for 14 days, you’re ready to shoot yourself,” said Aynor native Joanne Causey, who owns a home on 29th Avenue North.
Myrtle Beach Mayor Brenda Bethune said the city aims to welcome all guests but that Ocean Boulevard simply can’t handle the volume of people that come out during Bikefest.
“When we get groups of thousands upon thousands of people, we have to put public safety first and foremost on top of everything we do,” she said.
The traffic loop has been in place since a spate of shootings rocked the city during 2014 Bikefest and led then-Gov. Nikki Haley to call for an end to the event. The city also trucks in hundreds of additional officers from outside agencies every year, leading to an environment that some visitors say is foreboding. There were 634 visiting officers in 2017.
The NAACP’s suit against the city and its police department includes a request for an injunction to stop the planned traffic pattern immediately. Court filings argue that the loop is even more restrictive than the plan scuttled by a federal judge in 2005, and documents from that case have been submitted as exhibits.
It’s unclear whether Andrews will again spend Memorial Day weekend helping out people caught in the loop on 29th Avenue North, offering them a bathroom that’s not available for much of the path that takes hours to travel.