PrimeTime Civil Rights is part of Mississippi’s DNA. That distinctly includes the South region.
The mere mention of the state still immediately conjures up chapters among chapters of dramatic, courageous, but also painstaking sagas where both famous and everyday people endured blood sweat and tears fighting some of the worse forms of inequality, racism, and human mistreatment as recent as 50 and as long as 200 years ago, up to today.
Many of those battles were gloriously won; some of them were lost, even at the loss of life.
Following the provocity of the proverb, “If you don’t know your history, you’re doomed to repeat it,” historians, writers, and community leaders assess that these civil rights moments and events must be showcased at the risk of bringing back its pain and discomfort, in an organized manner so that the public view it, hopefully in a way that penetrates the soul and shakes up the conscious.
In the past, the civil rights achievements in the Biloxi-Gulfport region were not necessarily grouped in with the more internationally famous stories that took place in Jackson or the northern parts of the state, but that is changing.
For example, a long list of separate accommodations, formal acknowledgements and events have been held over the course of 2018 thus far, giving resounding recognition and much needed attention to the state’s most historic and famous civil rights accomplishments, with yearning hopes of today’s and future generations to learn and embrace the heroics of their elders and use it as a catalyst toward moving the community forward in the coming decades.
Perhaps the most significant ongoing project now is being conducted by the National Park Service, operating under the U.S. Department of the Interior, who sent officials down to Biloxi this month to conduct a Special Resource Study for Mississippi Civil Rights sites. Through a law passed by Congress last year, the NPS is studying nationally-significant civil rights-related historic sites to determine the potential for the designation of a new national park unit.
The Open House, held May 10 at the Biloxi Visitors Center, involved NPS officials conducting interviews, historical research and public input and gathering information about the civil rights climate in South Mississippi.
One of the prime study sites selected is the former medical and community office of Dr. Gilbert R. Mason Sr., on 670 Division St. in Biloxi. It was the main location where Dr. Mason treated his patients, plus at times, it served as Ground Zero for his community organization activities. The office was restored and listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 2017.
The other prime sites selected thus far include:
• The home in Jackson where civil rights activist Medgar Evers resided with his wife and was killed in 1963.
• Sites in the Mississippi Delta related to the lynching of 14-year-old Emmett Till on August 28, 1955, including Bryant’s store and Tallahatchie County Courthouse.
• The Old Neshoba County jail in Philadelphia, Miss., where civil rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner were held for a speeding violation prior to being released and murdered by a mob for registering black voters in 1964. The Reverends Martin Luther King Jr. and Ralph David Abernathy Sr. included the jail in a heralded voter registration march two years later.
Another site being studied is in Hattiesburg, where the house of Forrest County NAACP president Vernon Dahmer was firebombed to the ground in 1966. Dahmer was killed in the attack.
Dr. Gilbert Mason, Sr. led a group of nine adults and children to the first wade-in on May 14, 1959, and was turned away by Biloxi police. The largest of the wade-ins took place April 24, 1960, with 125 demonstrators. Dubbed “Bloody Sunday,” violence with the police led to dozens of beatings, injuries, shootings and two deaths.
Also that year NAACP Mississippi Field Director Medgar Evers gathered 72 sworn affidavits on the beatings at the beach that was forwarded to the U.S. Justice Department Civil Rights Division.
Another wade-in in 1963 was mostly peaceful, but still, 71 people were arrested. Dr. Felix Dunn of Gulfport was also an instrumental leader, braving death threats and the fire-bombing of his business office.
After over 200 delays over a four-year period, Federal District Judge Sidney Mize finally presided over the beginning of the trial, which ended in Feb. 1965. Judge Harold Cox ruled in upholding the segregation of the beach in 1967, but the decision was immediately appealed.
Finally, on August 15, 1968, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed Judge Harold Cox’s decision, led by an opinion by Appeals Court Judge and former Mississippi Governor J.P. Coleman and the beaches were open to the entire public.
Dr. Mason would go on to form the Biloxi branch of the NAACP, where he was president for 34 years. He died in 2006 at the age of 77.
No less than two historical markers describing Dr. Mason’s Wade-In heroics are supplanted at the Gulf Coast beach that he fought to integrate.
Today, Dr. Gilbert Mason, Jr., who went from five to 14 years old during his father’s volatile trials, has been the constant and consistent visionary and driving force to assure the Wade-In remains in the fabric of South Mississippi’s heritage. His dogged determination has led to several historic preservation moments. He spearheaded the efforts toward his father’s office being renovated and officially preserved.
On April 24, the Biloxi Wade-In achievement was honored with the supplanting of Trail Marker #28 by the Mississippi Freedom Trail Task Force and the Mississippi Gulf Coast National Heritage Area, both divisions of the Mississippi Department of Archives and History. The marker was placed at the Biloxi Lighthouse Pier, off Hwy. 90 and at the beginning point of where the highway is formally named after Dr. Mason. It became the second such marker placed on the grounds.
“This wasn’t softball: this was life and death,” said Biloxi Mayor Andrew “FoFo” Gilich during the program. He remembered the Wade-In as a teenager living in Biloxi. “I didn’t understand then: I understand now.”
“This is so important; it’s high time we salute these individuals. We were putting our lives on the line,” said Dr. Leslie-Burl McLemore, Chair of the Mississippi Freedom Trail Task Force. “We still have our challenges today. Without Dr. Mason (Jr.), we would not be celebrating our heroes andsheroes of that time.”
James Crowell, the current Biloxi NAACP president said: “This happened because people wanted to stand up. They came and suffered the injuries and torment. We have this marker to represent that day.”
Two days later, this year’s annual Wade-In Witness Remembrance Program and Roll Call Tribute was held last month at the Biloxi Civic Center. Renowned gospel artist Cynthia Goodloe Palmer served as Special Guest Presenter. Gulfport’s People Mission Baptist Church, under the direction of Elder Shel Moore, joined with the Biloxi NAACP College and Youth Council in singing the same Negro Spirituals and traditional gospel songs that protestors used to keep themselves inspired.
Panelists Jeremy Eisler, Kay Horne, Peggy Ann Gibson and Dr. Mason gave witness accounts about the desegregation of public schools, which took place 50 years ago. Community activist Sabrina Stallworth and NAACP 1st Vice President Gary Gray conducted the Roll Call of both living and deceased South Mississippi residents that participated in the Wade-In protests during the early 1960s.
“Those amazing people were always in the house talking about civil rights issues,” Dr. Mason Jr. recalled during his youth. “We used to get hang up calls and callers who would shout horrible things.
When applying for his father’s office to be preserved, Dr. Mason Jr. stated: (My father’s) medical office is the standing building most closely associated with Dr. Mason and both his medical and civil rights work, since it was used for both purposes… the Medical Office… retains its integrity of location, materials, design, craftsmanship, feeling, and association with this significant Mississippian and his contributions to the course of civil rights and the medical profession in Mississippi.”
There is one more upcoming date of importance in regards to the Wade-In. August 15 will be the 50th anniversary of when Judge and former Mississippi Governor J.P. Coleman overruled the 1967 opposing decision, thus formally desegregating the beaches once and for all. A program is planned to observe that moment.