Until the 1950s, it was an unwritten rule for African Americans to swim at any of the local beaches in Mississippi. The police and city authorities were bent on enforcing what was non-existent in the law books.
This manifested when on May 14, 1959, physician Gilbert R. Mason Sr. decided to swim at a local beach with his friends and their children. They were confronted by a city police officer who asked them to leave the beach because they were violating Mississippi segregation laws.
The next day, Mason and one of his friends, Murry J. Suacier, Jr. went to the police station to find out which law they had violated. The police couldn’t tell which law they had broken, as reported by BlackPast. Later, they were greeted by Biloxi Mayor, Laz Quave, who warned them not to return to the beach or risk being arrested.
In June 1959, one of Mason’s friends, Dr. Felix H. Dunn, petitioned the Harrison County Board of Supervisors to inquire what laws would be breached if persons of African descent visited the beaches. The Board president responded by telling Dr. Dunn that property owners along the beach owned both the beach and water from the shoreline extending out 1,500 feet. This meant any black person who goes to the beach will be trespassing on the property of white property owners.
Not satisfied with the status quo, Mason, Dunn and two other Black residents wrote to the board asking for African Americans to be allowed to use the beach. A supervisor said the only permission African Americans would be granted was to use a segregated portion of the beach. Mason rejected the offer.
A year later, Mason returned to the beach to assert his right to use the beach. The city police arrested him for his actions. This move infuriated the Black community of Biloxi, which pledged to join him in subsequent protests to use the beach.
On April 24, 1960, which is known as the Bloody Wade-In Day, Mason marched with 125 Black men, women and children to gather on the beach. This got white segregationists upset and launched a counter-protest by pelting the demonstrators with rocks while firing shots over their heads. Chaos broke out between the white segregationists and Black protestors. Eight African Americans and two white men sustained gunshot wounds with several people injured from the fights.
The city police turned a blind eye while the protest was ongoing; they only intervened when it got bloody. They arrested Mason and tried and convicted him for disturbing public peace for his role in the demonstration. The U.S. Justice Department, on May 17, 1960, dragged the city authorities of Biloxi to court for barring African Americans from accessing the beaches.
When Biloxi authorities disregarded the lawsuit, civil rights leaders launched another protest which allowed them to file a suit in the Harrison County courts and secured a resolution on the matter. This saw mass wade-ins to the local beaches until the final protest on June 23, 1963. The protestors mounted black flags in the sand in memory of Medgar Evers who was assassinated in Jackson, Mississippi.
Scores of African Americans were beaten up during the protest, with the police arresting 71 Black protestors. In 1967, a federal judge ruled in favor of the U.S. Department of Justice, allowing Black people legal access to Mississippi’s beaches.
Physician Mason, who still operated his private family practice during his Civil Rights struggle, passed away on July 8, 2006.