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Biloxi effort to remember wade-in protests gets a share of $5 million Knight Challenge

Coast civil rights struggles should still inspire us today

Mississippi State University architecture instructor David Perkes has won a Knight Cities Challenge grant to build a portable tribute to the Biloxi Wade-Ins that will serve as an ongoing reminder that the beaches were once segregated and the Coast
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Mississippi State University architecture instructor David Perkes has won a Knight Cities Challenge grant to build a portable tribute to the Biloxi Wade-Ins that will serve as an ongoing reminder that the beaches were once segregated and the Coast

After three years of trying, David Perkes and the Gulf Coast Community Design Studio have one of the 33 winning entries in the $5 million Knight Cities Challenge.

More than 4,500 ideas were submitted to make the 26 communities where Knight invests more vibrant places to live and work. Biloxi/Gulfport is one of those locations because Knight-Ridder previously published the Sun Herald.

“It’s great to have a winner here in Biloxi,” said Perkes, as he looked out over the beach where people splashed in the water Friday.

We take it for granted — and rightly so, he said — that everyone is welcome at the beach. That wasn’t the case back in the 1960s, when South Mississippi’s beaches were segregated.

The idea he submitted as the director of the Design Studio is designed to keep alive the history of Biloxi wade-in protests to honor those who risked their lives to bring about change during the civil rights movement.

The lessons from those events can show people today how to change their communities and country for the better, he said.

The $100,000 they were awarded will be used to create a moveable platform and display that can be erected on the beach for re-enactments, storytelling and other events.

“We still have to work out how it’s built,” he said of the platform, how to move it and where to store it. He’ll meet with city and county officials to coordinate the effort and said he has many people in the community working with the Design Studio to figure it out.

Gulf Coast Community Design Studio is an outreach program of Mississippi State University’s College of Architecture, Art + Design, and Perkes is a professor and licensed architect who directs the efforts of the group out of its office at Vieux Marche in Biloxi.

“We got together in the studio and put down a whole bunch of ideas,” he said.

What stands out in Biloxi is the beach and the city has a civil rights story that is unique, he said.

Dr. Gilbert Mason held the first small wade-in on the beach in Biloxi in 1959. “Bloody Sunday” in 1960 was much bigger. Perkes said civil rights leader Medgar Evers came from Jackson afterward and took affidavits from 72 people who were attacked that day as they went into the water in three places — across from the Old Biloxi Cemetery, across from the Biloxi Lighthouse and to the east of where Hard Rock Casino Biloxi now stands. History says 2,000 anti-segregation protesters attacked the people in the water while the police watched, Perkes said, and the riots went into the community and on through the night.

Two people were killed that night. “A lot of people don’t even realize that,” he said.

Crowd gathers in Biloxi for annual Wade - In Remembrance ceremony.

The wade-in and another to follow in 1963 brought legal change that he said made it clear that the beaches are open to all for public access.

Some of those who participated in the wade-ins more than 50 years ago now find it challenging to go to the beach.

“They’re elders that have an important story to tell,” he said, and bringing wheelchair-accessible platforms right to where the wade-ins happened will help keep that history alive.

Their struggle is still relevant today to show the community how to organize and bring about change, he said.

Example of other Knight Cities winners this year:

▪  City Church Ruins Gardens, in Gary, Indiana, $163,333 to transform a historic downtown Gothic church into a ruins garden and event space;

▪  Grand Forks Freezeway, in Grand Forks, North Dakota, $141,140 to turn unused bike paths into ice skating paths during winter;

▪  Up Up & Away, in Philadelphia, $50,000 to create a programmable space where diverse communities of aspiring comic creators can attend workshops and receive professional development;

▪  The State’s Front Porch, in Columbia, South Carolina, $195,000 to encourage residents to connect with their leaders by reimagining the State House as a front porch for all.

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