Harrison County

Those who answer the roll call will tell of ‘Bloody Wade-in’

African Americans stage a wade-in on the beach in Biloxi on April 24, 1960 to protest the ‘White-only’ status of the beaches. A program that tells the rest of the events that happened that day in an court for the next several years will be held Thursday in Biloxi.
African Americans stage a wade-in on the beach in Biloxi on April 24, 1960 to protest the ‘White-only’ status of the beaches. A program that tells the rest of the events that happened that day in an court for the next several years will be held Thursday in Biloxi. Daily Herald File

Those who took part in the “Bloody Wade-in” on the Biloxi beaches on April 24, 1960, will tell their stories 57 years later. A “roll call” will be taken of the surviving witnesses during a program Thursday.

The commemoration will begin at 5:30 p.m. at the Gruich Community Center on Howard Avenue in Biloxi.

There were three wade-ins on the Biloxi beaches from 1959 to 1963; this year’s program will focus on the 1960 wade-in. That is when dozens of the 125 black Americans, mostly teens, “were attacked by a white mob while city police stood by without intervening,” said Gilbert Mason Jr., a retired physician and historian who helped organize Thursday’s program. His father, the late Gilbert Mason Sr. M.D., led the wade-ins. And although Mason Jr. was only 5 years old and doesn’t remember much, he was there for the 1959 wade-in.

“There is more to tell,” Mason said of the 1960 protest on the beach near the White House Hotel. “In addition to sustaining injuries and destruction of their personal property, the demonstrators were unjustly arrested for trespassing,” he said. “People were beaten and arrested for being beaten.”

What many people don’t know, he said, is the rest of the story. Two people were beaten to death on the beach, he said, one so severely he was almost decapitated.

“It was only thought that they would be arrested, but instead they were attacked by a mob,” Mason said. “People pulled up in cars and headed for them,” he said, armed with pipes, chains and 2-by-4 pieces of lumber provided by the owner of a local hardware store.

The police didn’t stop the attack. Jim Lund, a photographer for the Daily Herald, was there to get photos of the attack, although Mason said the photos didn’t run in the local newspaper until after they went national. The violence continued into the night, with shots fired into New Bethel Baptist Church, a black community church on Main Street.

Thursday’s presentation will tell these lesser-known details of the local civil rights story. The program was created by Mississippi Center for Justice’s president, attorney Reilly Morse, and a planning committee comprised of Mason, USM history professor Emeritus James “Pat” Smith, MSU professor David Perkes with Gulf Coast Community Design Studio, former judge John Whitfield, retired educator and community activist Clemon Jimerson, who was also a wade-in witness.

“I’ll Be Rested,” a song written by the vocalist Mavis Staples, will play as the roll call of the living and deceased wade-in witnesses is read. Mason said this is the third year the roll call will be part of the program.

Noted civil rights attorney Constance Slaughter-Harvey of Jackson will speak about the contemporary meaning of these historic protests and how the rule of law affected the decision to reverse years of racial segregation on South Mississippi beaches, Mason said.

Court records will be read to describe how a federal trial was needed to resolve the legal issues, after a state court ruled the property owners upland had ownership and control of the beach.

Even after the 1964 Civil Rights Act was signed, it took a year or so before black Americans felt reasonably comfortable on the beaches in South Mississippi, Mason said. Before that, some of the businesses on the beach welcomed black customers, he said, including Baricev’s restaurant, Gus Stevens’ and Mary Mahoney’s — especially owner Mary Mahoney, he recalled, and remembers how he had never gone to a white-tablecloth restaurant before.

By the early 1970s, when he left for college, Mason said, “The transformation of the beach was extensive in terms of access to public accommodations and private businesses.”

Thursday’s event isn’t to teach a lesson, he said, but to explain how Biloxi got to this point, from blacks being banned from the beach to the city hosting Biloxi Black Beach Weekend and being a tourist destination for everyone who wants to enjoy themselves in the South.

If you go

What: Wade-in witness remembrance and roll call tribute

When: 5:30 p.m. Thursday

Where: Gruich Community Center, 591 Howard Ave., Biloxi

Biloxi Civil Rights timeline

May 14, 1959: Dr. Gilbert Mason Sr. led eight other adults and children onto a forbidden spot on Harrison County’s beach in deliberate defiance of Mississippi’s segregation laws and practices.

April 17, 1960: Dr. Mason’s one-man wade-in at Biloxi triggered his arrest and trial the following week in Biloxi Municipal Court. On the same day, Dr. Felix Dunn led a wade-in with about a dozen people in Gulfport; police removed demonstrators from the beach but did not arrest them.

April 24, 1960: The Bloody Wade-in: Mason led a 125-person demonstration on Biloxi Beach, during which white mobs attacked demonstrators. Dozens of injuries, shootings and two deaths resulted. The same day in Gulfport, authorities ignored a small demonstration led by Dunn.

April 25-May 5, 1960: Medger Evers gathered 72 sworn affidavits on the beatings of demonstrators on Biloxi Beach. These were forwarded to U.S. Justice Department Civil Rights Division.

May 17, 1960: Justice Department files suit against Harrison County and Biloxi on behalf of victims of systematic violence denied use of the beach April 24.

June 6, 1960: The first hearing on the beach desegregation case took place in federal court before Judge Sidney Mize. The first of what would become more than 200 delaying motions was granted the state.

June 24, 1963: Seventy-one people were arrested in a peaceful Biloxi wade-in. This demonstration aimed to move the beach case to state courts to bypass the extensive delaying tactics in federal district court.

Dec., 14, 1964: The beach case finally came to trial before Mize. In the four-year interval between the first motion and the trial date, Biloxi schools had desegregated based on a suit brought by Mason, and the 1964 Civil Rights Act had passed, opening all public accommodations to all citizens. Still the state fought the beach desegregation case.

Feb. 12, 1965: The trial phase of the beach case ended. Mize delayed his ruling and later died, leaving another federal judge to take up the case, review testimony and rule two years after the trial ended.

March 8, 1967: Federal District Judge Harold Cox ruled against the plaintiffs upholding segregationist practices on the beach under the theory that a beach, created and maintained by tax money, was somehow privately owned by property owners across U.S. 90. The Justice Department filed immediate appeal.

Aug. 15, 1968: The 5th Circuit Court of Appeals reversed Cox’s ruling. In an opinion written by Appeals Court Judge J.P. Coleman, a former Mississippi governor, the beach was opened to all members of the public.

Gilbert Mason Jr. M.D.