Written by


The Sun Herald

May 2013

BILOXI — Fifty years ago, civil rights protesters held sit-ins at lunch counters or in waiting rooms or bus stations across the South.

In Biloxi, a different type of event — wade-ins — called attention to the fact that blacks were not allowed on the 26 miles of beach along the Mississippi Gulf Coast.

The city was commemorating the 50th anniversary of the wade-ins today at the Biloxi Visitors Center.

James Paterson Smith, co-author with Dr. Gilbert R. Mason Sr., of "Beaches, Blood and Ballots: A Black Doctor's Civil Rights Struggle," was to lead a discussion about the wade-ins and how the nonviolent 1963 protest differed from protests in 1959 and 1960.

Historical photos and video interviews will be on display to tell the story.

The event is part of the city's Thursdays in May series, which features historical events and sites.

"This is one we asked them to do to enable us to use this date to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the 1963 wade-in protest," said Mason's son, Dr. Gilbert Mason Jr.

"Other places were doing sit-ins and demonstrations," he said, but because Biloxi had a beach, the protesters chose to use that.

Smith, a professor at the University of Southern Mississippi, said local leadership made the wade-ins a different form of protest than others.

"This was an indigenous movement," he said. "The NAACP was not involved to any extent. This was symbolic of local leadership —- they stuck their necks out and stuck with it."

Because the wade-ins did not have outside leadership, it was a sustained effort that didn't collapse after leadership left town, Smith said.

During the first wade-in in 1959, Gilbert Mason Sr. and nine others were removed from the beach, Smith said. That prompted them to do research to make a case that the beach should be open to all because the sand was placed by the government.

On April 24, 1960, a white-on-black riot occurred when 40 or 50 black activists attempted to swim on the beaches in Biloxi and Gulfport, according to USM archives.

"The whites-only beach became a scene of chaos as angry whites attacked the civil rights activists with sticks, chains, blackjacks and pool cues," according to the archives.

Four were seriously wounded. Later that night, two white men and eight black men suffered gunshot wounds.

The next day, two firebombs were thrown into Mason's medical office in response to his leadership of the wade-ins.

A boycott of white-owned businesses ensued.

On May 17, 1960, the Justice Department filed suit in the U.S. District Court to force equal access of the 26-mile coast's beach for all races. There were 119 delaying maneuvers, however, that kept the case out of court, Smith said.

Local black leaders decided they could get a quicker trial in Harrison County court, and from there, appeal the decision. So another wade-in was planned.

In "Beaches, Blood and Ballots," Mason described the events of June 23, 1963, when about 75 people drove to the waterfront, parked, and walked to the beach between the Biloxi Lighthouse and the Old Biloxi Cemetery — the site of the mob attacks during the 1960 wade-in.

The event was organized with the cooperation of the new mayor, Danny Guice, whom newly registered black voters helped put into office.

Medgar Evers, who helped organize the wade-ins, had been killed the week before in Jackson, so beachgoers placed a double row of black flags in his honor.

About 2,000 white spectators had gathered, and there was a heavy police presence, but in contrast to 1960, the police kept the mob from attacking the protesters.

"We swam, played ball, and milled around for 40 minutes or so," Mason wrote.

But a homeowner complained about the protesters, so they were arrested for trespassing, for which they were later convicted. The arrests allowed them to get the issue into court.

After eight years of struggle and litigation, on Aug. 16, 1968, Judge J.P. Coleman of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled the beach should be open to all in perpetuity.