BILOXI, MISSISSIPPI–It’s safe to say, the rights we have today are ours because of others. The 60’s were part of an overall epoch of decades where the United States would grapple with “The Negro Problem,” among other things. In 1959, the fight towards civil rights bled into the mississippi shoreline.
After years of storm surge and hurricanes, in 1953 the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers completed a major tax-funded project. The project would include the construction of a concrete seawall and produce the largest manmade beach in the United States. Over six million cubic yards of sand was brought into Harrison County, forever changing the look and feel of the Biloxi, Mississippi shoreline. Biloxi was to assume a resort type of quality and tourism would grow.
Ethel Rainey Clay remembers growing up by the sea saying, “I was a junior in high school. When I would drive down the beach on my way to work, I would think what a creation it was that God had made and that we had the privilege of having the gulf of Mexico in our yard. I use to say, with my parents as poor as they are, why can’t we enjoy the beach?” Clay, along with the other black residents of the city would soon find that the new sparkling beach sand brought a new rule: no blacks on the beach. In 1955, a physician by the name of Dr. Gilbert Mason would move into the area with his family. He was undoubtedly astute, having graduated from a handful of universities. He grew up in notorious Jackson, Mississippi and was no stranger to the effects of Jim Crow. Now on the shore, he had an idea, that just as the inland cities had boycotts and sit-ins, he would start wade-ins on the beach.
Dr. Gilbert Mason Jr. remembers his father’s effort saying, “my father and one of his associates went to the police department to try to find out what the laws were but there were none written down. The individuals that owned property north of highway 90 assumed erroneously that they owned property across the highway to the shoreline, but they didn’t.”
Dr. Mason would begin the first wade-in alone and was arrested. It lit a fuse in the community and more wade-ins would ensue as tensions mounted. Clemon Perry Jimerson Sr. and his family along with others would join the effort saying, “I was 14 years old. We actually went out into the water to start swimming. My sister could actually see that they had assembled a large mob of local police and state troopers. There were young men and older men with clubs coming to attack us.” Ethel Rainey Clay was the youth president of the NAACP and says “I was able to see some of the very same people I worked with at the hotel, the white people, with the bats and chains. I recognized them. There were a line of police officers standing along the seawall. I felt comfortable because they were there. I knew they were going to protect us but when these men came after us with bats and chains, they turned and looked the other way.”
Over a hundred African-American men and women would take to the water as hoards of people disturbed the metronome of the tide and God’s creation” became the setting for what would be known as”Bloody-Sunday.” United States vs. Harrison County was won in 1968 to integrate the beach. “Biloxi has that curious history. My parrents wanted a better world for me than they had grown up in. They were tremendous. I miss them,” says Dr. Gilbert Mason Jr.
Today, in front of the Biloxi Beach Pier, there are historical plaques that honor Dr. Mason and the many men and women who participated in the wad-ins.” To learn more about the history, you can take a beachside voyage to 386 Beach Boulevard, Biloxi Mississippi to visit the Ohr-O’Keefe Museum of Art. There is an exhibit that teaches specifically about the wade-ins.