Myrtle Beach officials optimistic about this year’s Bikefest (copy) (copy)

Motorcyclists start to fill the streets in Atlantic Beach during the annual Memorial Day Bikefest. File

Last week, as you likely have heard about or read, the NAACP filed a federal lawsuit against the city of Myrtle Beach and its police department claiming that the traffic pattern enforced during the annual Memorial Weekend Bikefest Rally is discriminatory.

The springtime motorcycle gathering and boulevard cruise, whose participants tend to be almost entirely African-American, dates back some 40 years (according to a P&C story), an outgrowth of Jim Crow-era festivities in Atlantic Beach, one of the few places along the Grand Strand where blacks were free to vacation without harassment, prejudice or discrimination.

The Myrtle Beach Bike Week (aka the Harley-Davidson bike rally) celebrates its 79th anniversary May 11-20. Comprised almost entirely of white participants, the Harley rally nonetheless bears some semblance to the Bikefest rally — both like the Myrtle Beach area, both prefer the spring primarily and both are expected to follow the basic rules, including no underage drinking, no open containers in vehicles or public areas, no littering or disruptive, disorderly behavior.

The scores of thousands of bikers representing both rallies who descend on the Grand Strand certainly look for camaraderie and fellowship, not to mention other pleasures. Lady bikers and passengers are more than cordially invited to participate in the celebrations. Considering that the spirit of both events further springs forth from spirits of one sort or another, and understanding the sheer number of participants, it’s no surprise that the local policing would be overwhelmed and that maintaining proper order and decorum next to impossible.

All of these are ongoing challenges, and it’s not as if they haven’t been addressed before. Despite the huge and generally positive financial impact the rallies were known to have on the local economy, by 2009 many residents had had enough and decided that it was no longer worth the yearly aggravation and inconvenience.

As described in a New York Times story in May 2009, and after years of complaints about noise and air pollution, boorish behavior, violence and indecency, Myrtle Beach City Council and Mayor John Rhodes put the kibosh on both rallies in effect when, in September 2008, the unanimous vote was made to enforce the wearing of helmets and goggles for all riders, outlaw loud mufflers and engine revving, straight pipes, and parking more than two motorcycles in a space.

Council further enacted curfews for minors and banned alcohol sales after 2 a.m., loitering in designated parking lots and setting up shop along roadsides with chairs, picnic accouterments and coolers (that would be expected to contain libations stronger than Shirley Temples.)

Myrtle Beach, once known as a quiet golf and beach destination for families, had lost one of its premier weather and business months (May) to hordes of motorcyclists. People grew tired of bikers and bars advertising for wet T-shirt contests and bobbing for sex toys, scofflaw road behavior, tawdry dress, public drunkenness and exposure, foul language and disregard for property and privacy.

Not everybody behaved this way, of course, and some were worse than others. The difficult question is obviously whether one group behaved better on average (or worse) than the other, thus underpinning racial discord that has legally complicated managing the biker weekends dating back to 2005, when a federal judge ruled that Myrtle Beach had discriminated against black bikers by changing traffic patterns for their rally but not for the Harley-Davidson rally.

At any rate, fast forward about a decade to 2014. Both biker rallies had recovered from the legal challenges of 2009 and were more popular and disruptive than ever. The Myrtle Beach business community was divided over the matter, and restrictions were largely dropped or ignored in favor of the bottom line. But a spate of gunfire during the 2014 Memorial Weekend Bikefest ruined the entire event and resulted in three deaths and seven injuries.

Former Gov. Nikki Haley tried to intervene by asking Atlantic Beach to end its street fair tied to the event, but to no avail. Myrtle Beach then instituted the new traffic pattern, which does not allow the usual cruising of the boulevard but instead, according to the P&C story, shunts all traffic southbound on the central section of Ocean Boulevard and out into the expanses of Horry County. In the meantime the city started recruiting enhanced police presence from around the state to assist with law enforcement.

The associate general counsel for the NAACP said, “Like the despicable signs that were raised up during the days of Jim Crow, the traffic plan is for colored people only,” further calling the traffic pattern “23 miles of frustration, 23 miles of humiliation, 23 miles of segregation.”

No question the traffic pattern is many things to many people, as is the issue of racism, yet the people of Myrtle Beach have overall tried to show business hospitality, including that generated by the Bikefest. The above comments are therefore not helpful at best, demagogic at worst, and ignore what many would consider the sensible understanding of actions and reactions.

To avoid any negative appearances, Myrtle Beach should implement the Bikefest traffic pattern for both rallies, and either they will go away (to the considerable relief of many residents, businesses and property owners) or participants will learn how to make them work and adapt to them relatively seamlessly.

Like anything else in life — it’s all about choices and their consequences.

Edward M. Gilbreth is a Charleston physician. Reach him at

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