BILOXI, MISSISSIPPI– To swim in the ocean is to dance about in the first of God’s creations. The shore is a place of peace and reflection but it wasn’t always so. During the 40’s in Los Angeles, Nick Gabaldon learned to surf in the waters of “Ink Well Beach” or “Negro Beach;” a part of Santa Monica. Segregation extended to from the color line to the shoreline. Down south, Mississippi was notorious for it’s furious struggle of civil rights. Sit-ins, freedom rides and marches helped to move an era of change into the capital city of Jackson and the delta. All the while, the likes of Fannie Lou Hamer and Medgar Evers were pushing rights along with the NAACP and SNCC. While the greater area of Mississippi held sit-ins, at the coast in Biloxi, there were wade-ins.
Dr. Gilbert R. Mason Sr. was born in Jackson, Mississippi. After moving away for his education, he moved on an opportunity to come back to his beloved Mississippi as a physician/family practitioner job opened up in Biloxi. Dr. Gilbert Mason Jr. recollects on his father’s reaction to his new community saying, “Here it really became obvious that in this growth area, there was this luxurious beach that was being enjoyed by whites only.”
The Army Corps of Engineers were working on a complete overhaul of the beach, creating a reinforced seawall. The object was to enhance teh appearanc eof the beach with white sand. There was no sand previously. The project was funded with federal funding of taxpayer money, that was paid for by people of all races. Dr. Mason Sr. was an adept swimmer who enjoyed the pool. He, just as many other African Americans were ready to enjoy the new “resort-style” beaches, but it was not to be done without a challenge.
Dr. Mason Jr. says, “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’s father was ready for a fight. In the first nonviolent civil disobedience action of Mississippi, Mason organized three wade-ins beginning in 1959. “In 1960, there was an actual riot and an attack on the young blacks and came out to try and enjoy the beach that day,” says Mason Jr.
As the Jackson, Mississippi NAACP chapter secretary, Medgar Evers is assassinated two hours away, Mason planned another wade-in that year.
During one of the beach protests, Mason was by himself. As news spread, members of the community joined in for the second wade-in and were attacked by white mobs. As time passes, Mason begins the Biloxi chapter of the NAACP and lives a long life, passing in 2006.
In 1968, the beaches were finally opened to the African American community. Dr. Gilbert Mason Jr. says, “Biloxi has that curious history. My parents wanted a better world for me.”