Elise's Newsroom Blog: The wade-ins, before & after

By Elise Roberts - bio | email

As I wind down my sixth year in TV news, I must say the Biloxi beach wade-ins assignment is by far one of the more interesting stories I've been able to share.

I remember being asked to be a part of the planning committee months before this story aired. I declined because I didn't know enough about the history at the time. However, over the next few months I made it my mission to learn about Dr. Mason, the wade-ins and the people who would live to tell the story.

After getting email updates about the planned ceremonies and the progress, I decided to pitch the story idea to management.  They accepted the idea and I couldn't wait to begin to tell the story of the wade-ins ahead of the 50 year anniversary commemoration ceremonies.

One of my first interviews was with Mrs. Elsie Ruthie Dixon.

Mrs. Dixon, now in her 70s, invited me into her Biloxi home one Monday afternoon. She was a bit nervous to talk on camera about what she recalls as one of the most frightening times of her life. As my photographer Pat Gibson set up the camera, Mrs. Dixon shared with us how she prayed prior to our interview.

"I called my daughter over to pray because there was just this spirit that came over me last night. It was like I was re-living what happened during that time," said Dixon. "So last night we had to pray for peace and clarity before I could do this interview."

Her story was our icebreaker. Mrs. Dixon and I hugged, had a brief session of girl talk, then she gracefully shared her story about living in Biloxi in the 1960s.

Mrs. Dixon said female members of the Biloxi NAACP served as prayer warriors. They followed Dr. Mason to speeches where they huddled around him to pray before and after his speeches.

The women were also responsible for making sure the children got home from school safe. Mrs. Dixon said her role was especially important because she was personally responsible for getting Gilbert Mason, Jr. to and from school.

"It was fearful with Gilbert in my car," said Dixon. "But I had to take care of him."

Mrs. Dixon told me she fought on the beach battleground , but it's evident that her fight behind the scenes was just as important.

I interviewed Pastor James Black and Le'Roy Carney one windy April afternoon on the beach.

The men showed up dressed to impress.  I teased them about getting their freshly shined shoes dirty by walking with me in the sand.

The men told me they had no problem walking on the Biloxi beach, and I soon learned why.

Pastor Black, in his cool, calm and collected voice told me about his experience leading up to the bloody wade-ins. He said Dr. Mason trained his followers how to curl up like a ball and protect their heads, instead of fighting back.

It's an account that almost brought me to tears. I was listening to living history. Men who didn't know whether they would live or die, but they did what they had to do for equality.

Mr. Carney is Pastor Black's polar opposite. He was so animated as he told how he and his younger brother had to run through a cemetery in their swim trunks to keep from getting beaten up.

I learned so much about the history of the wade-ins from these men as well as people like Dr. Pat Smith, Felicia Dunn-Burkes and James Crowell. I continue to pick their brains on a regular basis.

I look at women like Dunn-Burkes who now spends her time practicing law and making sure others understand it. She exemplifies what it means to be female, powerful and black in the 21st century.

Over the past few years, I have developed a deep admiration and respect for people like Dunn-Burkes and members of the Mason family.  Their drive and ambition are what my generation should follow.

Even though I was born well after the civil rights movement ended, my family and mentors make sure that I know what went on in my community that never made it to textbooks.

This time last year, I remember sitting in the family room at my grandparent's home on a quiet Saturday afternoon. My grandmother and I watched the ending of a PBS documentary about her school in what was a segregated Cartersville, Georgia.

My grandmother, a wide eyed, fair skinned woman, remembers her school days in North Georgia.

She says during the summer months, instead of playing chase or going swimming, she and a few of her other classmates would dig through dumpsters behind the white schools and pull out all of the old text books.

They did this for years to make sure they not only stayed ahead of their class, but also, to make sure they were getting the same education as their white counterparts.

And she did. Today both she and my grandfather are very successful.  Their success is my daily reminder to appreciate hard-work, patience, education and money management. It also reminds me to never be driven by fear.

I know that it is a blessing that I never had to experience segregated classrooms, communities or restaurants. But like so many, I know firsthand that covert racism still exists. It's in our schools, in the workplace and in our governments.

However, today, there are so many people from different cultures and different nationalities who are committed to the fight.

Some see me as a part of the new generation of civil rights leaders. A generation who must appreciate the efforts of the past, and commit to the triumphs of the future.

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