Remembering the Biloxi wade-ins

Published: May. 11, 2009 at 1:47 AM CDT|Updated: May. 11, 2009 at 2:17 PM CDT
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Helmeted police officers escort the first in a line of 71 arrested demonstrators off Biloxi...
Helmeted police officers escort the first in a line of 71 arrested demonstrators off Biloxi beach, following the 1963 wade-in. (Photo courtesy Mr. Leo Russell.)

By Elise Roberts - bio | email

HARRISON COUNTY, MS (WLOX) - Fifty years ago, the 26 mile stretch of South Mississippi's beach front was off limits if you were black.

The racist views and unfair treatment didn't sit well with civil rights leaders, sparking a series of wade-ins throughout the coast.

But the most memorable wade-in happened in Biloxi in the early 1960s. It was led by Dr. Gilbert Mason.

Le'Roy Carney remembers the tense times.

"We wanted to enjoy the beaches like the whites," Carney said. "We paid our taxes like they did."

Carney was a young black boy in 1960 who remembers what is now considered to be one of the bloodiest race riots in Mississippi history.

"All of a sudden there were police officers, cars, civilian people," Carney said. "Everybody was just coming east and west and just stopped in the middle of the road. Traffic came to a screeching halt."

After that wade-in on April 24, 1960, things began to change in Biloxi. Spearheading that change was Dr. Gilbert R. Mason.

The physician came to Biloxi from Jackson in 1952. It was a time when blacks were free to own homes and businesses, but Jim Crow segregationist laws kept them from doing much more.

"He fought for what was right. Equality," said Elsie Ruth Dixon.

Dixon was one of Dr. Mason's first patients. She also became a close friend to Dr. Mason and his wife, Natalie.

"We bonded like family, really," Dixon said.

The Masons became members of First Missionary Baptist Church. Dixon said the church became their place of worship and refuge from the harsh realities of racism.

"That's why he determined that he was going to fight," said Dixon.

The doctor wanted to de-segregate Biloxi beaches.

Public officials wouldn't allow blacks on the beach even though it was a federally funded recreational area.

So one afternoon in 1959, Mason, his young son, and six others defied the rules and went to the forbidden beach.

Officers quickly escorted them off the beach, claiming it was private property. But Mason knew that wasn't true. So with the help of Medgar Evers and Gulfport NAACP president Dr. Felix Dunn, Mason formed the Biloxi NAACP. The organization's first mission: to integrate the Biloxi beaches.

"We knew there was going to be a lot of name calling," Carney said. "We was told to ignore that and do the things that we came down to do."

On April 24, 1960, Le'Roy Carney, James Black and more than 100 other South Mississippians joined Dr. Mason in a carefully orchestrated wade-in.

"We were trained how to fall down and ball up and protect our heads and that sort of thing as opposed to fighting back," said Pastor James Black.

However, the protest was anything but peaceful. An angry mob of white people retaliated against the group.

"I could see them from where I was, getting objects out of their cars. They were getting everything they had coming toward the beach," said Carney.

Carney said the number of police officers was scarce, but he remembers one officer's words to the large mob.

"The civil rights had been signed into law and he told the crowd, 'Legally, I can't get them off, but you can,'" said Carney. "And when he said that, those people headed for that beach like a stampede."

The Biloxi beach became a battleground. The men say police stood by and watched as people were beaten with bricks, chains and baseball bats.

"I told my brother, 'Let's get up. We've got to get out of this water.' We started heading back to the land to get out of the water," Carney said. "We went through that Biloxi cemetery and hit that railroad track. We ran all the way back to Main Street in our swimming trunks because we couldn't get our clothes."

Both Le'Roy Carney and James Black escaped the angry mob that Sunday in April, but many more did not. They say some whites came to their defense.

Carney remembers a white woman coming out of her beach front home with a gun to scare off attackers. He also remembers the bloodshed.

"I saw a black man who had been kicked so much in the face that his eyes had literally turned green," said Carney.

Mrs. Dixon said a neighbor saved her from going to the beach that Sunday, but she remembers the violence.

"There was a black man, Mr. McDaniel. I know him well," said Dixon. "He got beat so bad that his wife fell across him and just pleaded to them not to hit him no more."

Years after the bloody Sunday, the Sovereignty Commission released its files on the investigation into what happened. It revealed that a number of state, city and county authorities knew in advance about the planned wade in, and that police intentionally operated with a skeleton crew.

The files also suggest that authorities knew there were a large number of white people planning to retaliate.

"I think it was when the NAACP went down as a group, somehow they saw that as a threat to the way things were here on the coast," said Carney.

After the riot, a bleeding Dr. Mason convinced a deputy to allow him to take care of his patients before surrendering to police.

"He took care of every patient that he had before he took care of himself," said Dixon.

By the end of the night, eight blacks and two whites were shot, dozens more were injured.

"You were just waiting to see what was coming next," said Carney.

The next morning, someone bombed Dr. Mason's Division Street office. Later in the week, two young black men were murdered.

In Dr. Mason's account, he remembers one of the victims as a mentally retarded man, whose nearly decapitated body was left on display in front of the Jefferson Davis home. The second victim was beaten to death in the Pascagoula Jail. Their murders were never solved.

The violence sparked some blacks to retaliate against innocent white people.

Meanwhile, less violent wade-ins continued to take place. But it wasn't until 1972 that the long battle to desegregate Mississippi's beaches officially ended.

In May of 1960, under President Eisenhower's direction, the U.S. Justice department sued the city of Biloxi for denying blacks the use of the beach.

Shortly before his death slain civil rights leader Medgar Evers along with the NAACP legal defense team helped finalize beach desegregation.

It took seven years, but the Justice Department won its case, and by 1968, the beaches were legally opened to all races.

Decades later, Dr. Mason would write about the harrowing ordeal.

"I think he knew there would be a tremendous value in the community to having this story told," said Dr. James Pat Smith.

In 2000, Dr. Smith co-authored Beaches, Blood and Ballots, a detailed account of Dr. Mason's civil rights struggle and his quest for equality.

"One man is easy to hush up," said Smith. "But one man that actually can vocalize what a large number of people are feeling, it becomes powerful."

Fifty years later, many people are remembering the movement and the lessons learned.

While there are millions of black owned businesses, state and local leaders, and a newly elected black president, many say the fight for equality has come to an end.

However, there are some who say, even in the 21st century, the civil rights struggle is far from over.

James Crowell remembers growing up in a racially tense Mississippi.

"It was very, very rough on people back in those days," said Crowell.

Today, Crowell is president of the Biloxi NAACP. A local organization founded by civil rights leader Dr. Gilbert Mason.

"At the time when Dr. Mason served, it wasn't a popular thing to be a part of the NAACP," said Crowell.

Now, Crowell is pleased to tell how the 100-year-old organization, founded by white Jewish people, is a melting pot with millions of members across the world.

"We've come a long way, but we still have a few things to do," said Crowell.

Crowell said in his perfect world, there would be no need for the NAACP. But the fight for better jobs and equal pay is far from over.

"You can't legislate that. People's hearts have to come to it," said Felicia Dunn-Burkes.

Dunn-Burkes can recall her father's tireless effort to end segregation on Mississippi's beaches. Decades later, the Gulfport attorney speaks of a different struggle.

"There's not a comfort level with you being the representative of, or the leader of, or the face of, or the image of. I do see that as being a problem here in South Mississippi still," said Burkes. "There are people who just hate."

Pastor James Black can attest to that hate. The kind of hate that will beat, shoot even kill over the color of someone's skin. The businessman was one of many who had to run for his life during the 1960 Biloxi beach wade-ins.

"It left us a dismantled community in a sense," said Black.

Today, Pastor Black credits the entire civil rights movement for making him stronger. But he regrets the narrow focus of the fight.

"Had we understood more back in the 60s and 70s, we would have been fighting for economic justice as much as civil rights. Because the power was in the banks, not necessarily sitting next to some white person in a restaurant," said Black.

"Every day I see signs of hope," said Sally Bevill.

Prior to Hurricane Katrina, Sally Bevill lived and worked in central Mississippi. She knows about the tense race relations, but said she's pleased with the progress.

"I just think that people are better educated now and we have more access to make ourselves better educated and to make ourselves a little bit wider, and not just live in a small box," said Bevill.

Now Bevill works with the coast's growing Hispanic population. She feels hate and racism will always be a part of history. However, she's optimistic that one day there will be a colorblind Mississippi where people of all races can work, play, build and govern under one roof.

"I see a world of people where we are not going to be driven by fear and greed anymore," said Bevill. "We are going to be driven by compassion and mercy, and that makes for a whole different world in which we live."

Next week, there will be a three-day commemoration service for the Biloxi Beach wade-ins.

Friday, May 15, 12:00 p.m.

  • "We Don't Want a Separate Beach"
  • Presentation featuring Lerone Bennett, Jr., editor Emeritus of Ebony Magazine and author

Saturday, May 16, 5:00 p.m.

  • "Every Good-bye Ain't Gone"
  • Presentation featuring Dr. Charles Bolton
  • Panel discussion: "The Children of Desegregation"

Sunday, May 17, 3:00 p.m., Biloxi Lighthouse

  • "Wade in the Water"
  • Picnic and Presentation of historical marker ecumenical service

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