Harrison County

‘You can’t swim here:’ New beach exhibit explains Biloxi’s Bloody Sunday, historic wade-ins

Learn about the historic Biloxi Wade-Ins at new beach exhibit

An exhibit showcases the struggle of civil rights leavers in the 50's and 60's in their fight to access the Biloxi Beach. It was created by the Gulf Coast Community Design Studio, in partnership with the city and NAACP.
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An exhibit showcases the struggle of civil rights leavers in the 50's and 60's in their fight to access the Biloxi Beach. It was created by the Gulf Coast Community Design Studio, in partnership with the city and NAACP.

Sixty years after the first Biloxi Beach Wade-In on May 14, 1959, organizers, supporters and participants returned to the very same spot to unveil a new exhibit.

The “Witnessing the Beach” exhibit was created to show beach-goers the hard work and struggle that went into making sure the beach is open to everyone, regardless of skin color.

Bishop James Black, a wade-in participant, said this exhibit comes at the perfect time with dozens of families on the beach for the summer.

“I saw a young black family walking on the beach today, and I thought to myself, ‘if they only knew what we went through so that they can be able to do that.’”

The exhibit is made up of large cards with photos, information and timelines surrounding the wade-ins and other prominent civil rights events that took place in South Mississippi.

It was created by the Gulf Coast Community Design Studio through a partnership with the City of Biloxi and the Biloxi NAACP. The project was funded through a Knight Cities Challenge grant given by the Knight Cities Foundation.

It will stay up on the beach near the Biloxi Lighthouse for the next three weeks.

What were the Biloxi Beach Wade-Ins

The Biloxi Beach Wade-Ins were civil rights demonstrations by black people on the Coast in an effort to integrate the beach. The first wade-in was held on May 14, 1959, led by Dr. Gilbert Mason Sr. During that first wade-in, police passing by told the participants “You can’t swim here,” and “We’re going to put you under arrest” according to the exhibit.

None of the nine participants were arrested that day, however, Mason and participant Murray Saucier went to city hall and were told by former Mayor Laz Quave, “If you go back down there on the beach, we’re going to leave you down there,” according to the exhibit.

In 1960, around 125 participants returned to the beach for another wade-in on April 24, also known as Bloody Sunday. Witnesses reported that the demonstrators were hit with bricks, baseball bats, pipes, sticks and other weapons.

On June 23, 1963, a third wade-in was held by 75 demonstrators, including two white ministers. The group was protected by law enforcement and former Mayor Daniel Guice as they protested.

In 1968, a federal court ruling opened the beaches to everyone.

Impact of the youth

A large number of protesters in both 1960 and 1963 were teenagers. This was because many adults received backlash from their jobs about their participation in the wade-ins.

They would not have been able to provide for their families had they lost their jobs.

“The young people really played a big role in this,” said Clemon Jimerson Sr. “I was 14 when I participated, and the leaders did a great job training us on what a non-violent protest was and how to stay focused on the non-violent part.”

Moving forward

As a call to action, organizers are asking people to text 205-430-9299 with messages stating where they see injustices today.

Responses will be compiled and shared as part of an interactive art exhibit that is currently in the works.

Organizers and supporters hope to one day have a permanent exhibit showcasing those who stood up for civil rights in the Biloxi Beach Wade-Ins.

Britneé Davis is McClatchy’s South Region Digital Producer. The south region includes the Sun Herald, the Telegraph, and the Ledger-Enquirer.
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