This article is posted in honor of Black History Month:
The waters beside Biloxi, Mississippi, were tranquil on April 24, 1960. But Bishop James Black’s account of how the harrowing hours later dubbed “Bloody Sunday” unfolded for African-American residents sounds eerily like preparations taken for a menacing, fast-approaching storm. “I remember so well being told to shut our home lights off,” said Black, a teenager at the time. “Get down on the floor, get away from the windows.” It wasn’t a rainstorm that residents battened down for, but mob reprisals. Hours earlier Black and 125 other African-Americans had congregated at the beach, playing games and soaking sunrays near the circuit of advancing and retreating tides. This signified no simple act of beach leisure, but group dissent. At the time, the city’s entire 26-mile-long shoreline along the Gulf of Mexico was segregated. Led by physician Gilbert Mason, the black community sought to rectify restricted access by enacting a series of “wade-in” protests. Chaos and violence, though, quickly marred this particular demonstration.
To comprehend how a beautiful beachfront became a laboratory for social unrest, consider Dr. Mason’s Biloxi arrival in 1955. A Jackson, Mississippi native, the general practitioner moved with his family after completing medical studies at Howard University and an internship in St. Louis. Many of Biloxi’s white doctors respected Mason, who died in 2006. “Some would ask him to scrub in for surgeries,” said his son, Dr. Gilbert Mason Jr. Still, gaining full privileges at Biloxi Hospital took 15 years. In northern cities, he’d dined at lunch counters and attended cinemas alongside whites. Here, change lagged. “Dad was not a traveled citizen, but he was a citizen of the world,” his son noted. “Things that he barely tolerated as a youth, he certainly wasn’t going to tolerate as an adult.”