Analysis

The doctor who stood up to the racist rioters on Mississippi’s Bloody Sunday

While not an endorsement of Hollywood, the line in the movie Judas and the Black Messiah when Fred Hampton says “politics is war without bloodshed” is precious.

The integration of Mississippi beaches 

Bloody Sunday on Sept. 24, 1960, was “surely a war,” according to accounts by Biloxi physician and civil rights leader Dr. Gilbert R. Mason and his milieu in Mississippi. These community activists put their lives on the line for Mississippians who are able to enjoy the beaches today. These beaches remind us, not only of the activists who made them accessible to everyone, but also how we can push back against the racists and fascists. 

Racists fail literacy test 

Dr. Mason, originally from Jackson, Miss., relocated to open his practice in the Black community of Biloxi.

A graduate of the Howard School of Medicine, and other institutions during his education, he opened an office in the Black community just 26 blocks from the beach that he was prohibited from using.

Initially, white owners of properties along the beachfront claimed that their homes included the beach.

However, these property owners must not have been reading the same books Dr. Mason was. They didn’t know that the 1953 major development of the beachfront used taxpayer money through the Army Corps of Engineers, making it federal land. 

The wade-in protests

Dr. Mason used this information to mobilize his first “wade-in” with nine other courageous Black citizens to desegregate Mississippi beaches. The wade-in was met by police escorting protesters off of the beach telling them that, “Negroes don’t come to the sand beach.”

The very next year on Easter Sunday, Dr. Mason and his counterpart in Gulfport, Miss., Dr. Felix H. Dunn, waded alone in these neighboring coastal cities. But that night Dr. Mason was arrested, prompting the rest of the community to come out.

The response resulted in the bloodiest riots by racist whites in the state’s history. Dr. Mason documented this in his book “Beaches, Blood and Ballots.” It tells the story of one of the bloodiest days in the battle for equality. 

Dr. Mason passed away in 2006. His son, Gilbert Jr. said of his late father in an interview that he  would not put up with any inequality when he was younger and he certainly was not going to put up with it when he became an adult.

Cops collaborating with racists

“They met us down there with baseball bats even though we elected them,” said Mason of the cops — really the Klan — who had their hands on their hips as the attack began. He described two of his collaborators wrestling with fascists with cue sticks on the ground. 

Dr. Mason recounted in video interviews about what became referred to as Bloody Sunday: A crowd of some 200 Black Mississippians trying to enter the beach were met with a crowd of upwards of 1,000 wielding baseball bats and pipes, and other weapons. The racists were led by fascist forces.

The recounting of history is often sanitized. It leaves out the imagery of the Civil Rights movement. Violent street fights occurred where Black Americans brought umbrellas and towels to protect themselves against police repression and had to fight for their lives. Many Black Biloxi residents also lived in fear, afraid to even walk by a window in case they got shot. 

It was not only the men who were involved in the struggle, it was women too.

“Then one of the women got involved,” Dr. Mason said in an interview about how the wife of the barber stepped in. 

She reportedly said, “Don’t kill my husband — beat me instead,” to dissuade the attackers away from her husband, sacrificing herself. 

Despite many severe injuries and a curfew imposed by the mayor, there were no deaths.

Black Biloxi residents fight and win

Ultimately, Dr. Mason won a lawsuit, the first one of its kind, against the state of Mississippi’s segregation of the beaches. The Biloxi school system was the first to integrate based on his successful challenge to integrate when he filed for his son to attend school.

Dr. Mason formed a chapter of the NAACP the week after Bloody Sunday. Previously, the people of Biloxi were alone in this battle in terms of outside or national support. However, Dr. Mason was in contact with others like Medgar Evers who was assassinated that same summer in Jackson. 

If you get a chance and get to the beach this summer, think about Dr. Mason and the Biloxi community and the possibility of people’s power.

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