Programs honor Civil Rights protests that desegregated Gulf Coast beaches

Programs honor Civil Rights protests that desegregated Gulf Coast beaches
A performance by People Mission Baptist Church Choir of Gulfport and Biloxi NAACP College and Youth Council. (Photo Source: WLOX)
A poster featuring Dr. Gilbert Mason Sr., a leader in effort to desegregate Biloxi's beaches. (Photo Source: WLOX)
A poster featuring Dr. Gilbert Mason Sr., a leader in effort to desegregate Biloxi's beaches. (Photo Source: WLOX)

BILOXI, MS (WLOX) - Hands clapped, feet stomped and the air filled with prayer and promise as many gathered to remember the Biloxi Wade-Ins, a series of protests that desegregated beaches along the Gulf Coast.

The 2018 Wade-In Witness Remembrance Program and Roll Call Tribute marks 59 years since the protests were started. The event served to honor those who fought for equality and access and remind the next generation of their legacy.

"I want them to understand what we went though for them to get what they have now," said Willie J. McSwaine, a wade-in witness.

Attendees enjoyed performances of soulful freedom songs from People Mission Baptist Church Choir of Gulfport and the Biloxi NAACP College & Youth Council. Afterward, attorney Jeremy Eisler engaged the audience in a historic presentation of public school desegregation in Mississippi.

The standout moment of the night was the official roll call of participants and witnesses, a documented list of all who played a part in the wade-ins.

In 1959, Biloxi physician Dr. Gilbert Mason led a group of activists, onto Biloxi's beach in protest of restrictive segregation laws. The wade-in that followed in 1960 became known as Bloody Sunday, one of the most violent moments of Mississippi's Civil Rights history.

Bishop James Black recalls those days. "We were denied access to the same thing our counterparts had access to. We already had desegregation in several other parts of our lives, we couldn't even go to the beach so that was a very pressing issue for all of us," he said.

"It's the fact that it was denied and it was public property," he noted. "My parents were taxpayers, so we should have had access just like anybody else."

In May 1960, under President Eisenhower, the U.S. Justice department sued the City of Biloxi for denying blacks the use of the beach. Seven years later, the Justice Department won its case the beaches were legally opened to all races by 1968.

As Willie J. McSwaine proudly recalled the protests, she declared, "That beach, I don't even go down in that water anymore. I don't sit on that sand. But if I want to, I should be able to, because I'm a tax paying citizen, and that's that."

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