BILOXI, MS (WLOX) - People from across the Coast gathered Tuesday night to remember the historic Biloxi Beach wade-ins.
Sixty years ago, violent protests rocked South Mississippi as black people fought for the right to be on the beach. The first protest on the beach took place in 1959. At least three other protests would take place between then and 1963, all led by local physician Dr. Gilbert Mason Sr.
On April 24, 1960, Mason led about 125 volunteers in a peaceful wade-in on three separate areas of the segregated Biloxi Beach. The protesters were trained in non-violent passive resistance and expected to be arrested. Instead, they were violently attacked by a group of white people armed with pipes and chains as police stood by without intervening.
"I got all my teeth broken real bad, and I got hit in the head... big cut in the head,” said Dolores Stewart Shealy, who participated in the historic “Bloody Sunday” protest.
The violence spread throughout the city, leading to the arrests of mostly black people.
“The police officers allowed us to be attacked," remembered Le’Roy Carney. “We were just down there playing ball and trying to swim and enjoy the beach.”
When one hears of the brutality in the attacks, they are often stunned.
“I was very young when this took place and I still couldn’t understand how these kind of things happen and still can’t today," said Biloxi Mayor FoFo Gilich at the ceremony marking the wade-ins. " Bottom line, we’re better people. Biloxi and our community is very thankful these kind of changes happened."
The last wade-in protest was in 1963. That protest resulted in the local chapter of the NAACP being founded. Four years later, the federal court of appeals ruled in favor of black residents, opening the beaches to the public and making them accessible to all.
“They were able to change an entire system and get laws changed so that everyone had equality,” said Angie Juzang, the event coordinator for the anniversary ceremony.
Many of those involved 60 years ago keep the story alive by sharing their experiences each year on the anniversary of the wade-ins.
“Now to come back and participate and tell my story to my children and my grandchildren, you know it is exciting to me,” said Shealy.
Every year, community members continue to gather to celebrate those who made the change possible, reminding the current generation of the sacrifices their elders made to give them the rights they have today.
“Having this happen annually is something that I hope will be sustained for years to come,” said Dr. Gilbert Mason, Jr., who was just a young child when his father led the movement to desegregate the beach.
In May 2009, the state of Mississippi dedicated a historical marker commemorating the 50th anniversary of the first wade-in. There is also an historical marker remembering the protests at the Biloxi Lighthouse and a section of Highway 90 was renamed the “Dr. Gilbert Mason Sr. Memorial Highway.”