As a choir sang the classic spiritual “Wade in the Water,” about 100 people gathered Thursday to mark the anniversary of the most prominent civil rights demonstrations on the Coast, more than 50 years ago.
Black people had not been allowed on most Coast beaches until the mid-20th century. Starting in 1959, Dr. Gilbert Mason Sr., a Biloxi physician and activist, organized annual wade-in protests that eventually integrated the 26 miles of beach.
Thursday night, those who’d risked their lives at the wade-ins were remembered at the Wade-In Witnesses Remembrance and Roll Call Tribute at the Dr. Frank Gruich Sr. Community Center.
Ward 2 City Councilman Felix Gines and attorney Kiara Taite conducted the roll call, calling out the names of nearly 160 participants — many of whom have since died. Panelists, guest speakers and the audience recalled painful memories about their own experiences, and perspective on the true meaning of the wade-ins and what they symbolized.
“They were willing to take great risks to stake their place as full citizens,” said James “Pat” Smith of the protesters. Smith is a University of Southern Mississippi history professor emeritus and co-author with Mason of “Beaches, Blood and Ballots: A Black Doctor’s Civil Rights Struggle.” “These were times when a principle struggle for freedom made a difference; and they still can.”
Clemon Jimmerson was just 14 when he became involved, inspired by Mason’s courageous leadership.
“When Dr. Gilbert was arrested, it created a community uproar,” Jimmerson said. “It’s just through the grace of God that my family made a decision that they wanted to attend these rallies.”
He was impressed with Mason’s knowledge and preparation.
“He knew the Constitution, the laws,” he said. “He was an inspiration to me, he was my medical doctor, he also was my Scoutmaster; we had like a father-son relationship.”
Mason led a group of nine adults and children to the first wade-in on May 14, 1959, which was turned away by Biloxi police. The largest of the wade-ins was April 24, 1960, with 125 demonstrators. That protest came to be called “Bloody Sunday.” Violence incited by police led to dozens of beatings, injuries, shootings and two deaths. Bloody Sunday sparked the formation of the Biloxi branch of the NAACP.
“Police cars from Vancleave, Pascagoula, New Orleans, Moss Point, were lined up across the beach,” said Delores Steward Shealy, 76. “They pulled brass knuckles out. I got hit in the mouth and broke all of my teeth and got a black eye.”
Angry white residents beat protesters with clubs and chains while police looked the other way.
Later that year, NAACP Mississippi Field Director Medgar Evers gathered 72 sworn affidavits on the beatings at the beach. He forwarded them to the U.S. Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, which filed a lawsuit.
After more than 200 hearing delays spanning four years, The trial in December 1964; it ended in February 1965. Federal District Judge Harold Cox ruled in 1967 to uphold the segregation of the beach, but the decision was immediately appealed.
Finally, Aug. 15, 1968, the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals reversed Cox’s decision, led by an opinion by Appeals Court Judge J.P. Coleman, and the beaches were opened to all races.
Civil rights attorney and activist Constance Slaughter-Harvey, first black woman to earn a law degree at the University of Mississippi, delivered Thursday’s keynote speech and called for a moment of silence for Bud Strong and Malcolm Jackson, the two killed in the 1960 wade-in. She also lauded Mason.
“We’re dealing with a man who turned out for a wade-in and nobody else came to the party,” she said, referring to one where Mason went solo. “Police officers arrested him, not knowing that was a catalyst to lead to other people joining in. When somebody is mistreating you, it’s incumbent upon us to stand up and speak for you.”
Thursday’s panel discussion brought up the controversies surrounding Biloxi’s recent spring break events and the need to connect with the young generation.
“You can use events like this as a tool to make it relevant to a young person,” said legal advocate Dawn Stough, one of the panelists, who has a 14-year-old daughter. “We can explain why it was important that students had access to the beach.”
A woman in the audience said in light of the spring break controversy, she felt she and her children had the right to be on the beach but did not feel welcome there.
Mayor Andrew “FoFo” Gilich came later as a spectator, but was asked to make a comment. He described the diversity of Biloxi as a “gumbo” and insisted everyone is welcome.
“We’re part of this gumbo, it is positive, every visitor is an opportunity,” he said. “Much more good than bad happens and we can keep the good and eliminate the bad. I’m just proud of Dr. Mason. I want to be a part of this gumbo that I enjoy.”