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Civil Rights in Mississippi Digital Archive:

A Brief History of the Civil Rights Movement
on the Mississippi Gulf Coast

Pete Seeger and a Freedom School class in 1964

Several groups and organizations were formed as a result of the Civil Rights Movement on the Gulf Coast. The Biloxi Civic League was organized by Drs. Dunn and Mason in June 1959. The Harrison County Civic Action Committee was organized in June 1959 by Drs. Dunn and Mason and Dr. Dunn was elected chairman. The two Drs. then focused on the Head Start program in the late 1960s, and the name eventually changed to the Gulf Coast Community Action Agency.

The first Gulf Coast chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) was founded by Dr. Gilbert Mason. Ruby Tyler was secretary. Rev. M.C. Easily was treasurer. Rehofus Esters, Luzell Bullock, Sr., and Ossie Seymour were the first, second, and third vice-presidents, respectively. However, many African-Americans in Biloxi and the surrounding area were wary of joining the NAACP because of the possible repercussions from the white community. As a result, initial membership and participation were better in the Biloxi Civic League and the Harrison County Civic Action Committee than in the NAACP. The North Gulfport Civic League was another civil rights organization of the Mississippi Gulf Coast, and the president was Robert Cook.

The Civil Rights Movement on the Mississippi Gulf Coast hosted many advocates and events that helped South Mississippi become truly integrated. Many people bravely faced opposition in pursuit of better lives for African American citizens on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. One of these brave people was Dr. Gilbert Mason. Mason was born on October 7, 1928, in Jackson, Mississippi. His father, a barber, was well-respected in the community and greatly influenced Mason. While growing up he was very involved in the Boy Scouts and his local church; both strongly influenced his life. Dr. Mason attended Lanier High School in Jackson and Tennessee State in Nashville. He attended medical school at Howard University in Washington, D.C. After an internship in St. Louis, Missouri, he and his wife, Natalie, and their son, Gilbert, moved to Biloxi, Mississippi, where Dr. Mason opened his medical practice in July 1955. Mason was a civil rights leader in Biloxi and the Mississippi Gulf Coast. He led the wade-ins and lawsuits that eventually desegregated the Mississippi beach and public schools in Biloxi. He also worked for voter registration and helped organize a boycott aimed at gaining fair hiring practices for blacks at local businesses. He founded and served as president of the Biloxi branch of the NAACP. He also served as vice-president of the Mississippi NAACP for thirty-three years. Dr. Mason organized the Harrison County Civic Action Committee and reorganized the Biloxi Civic League.

Volunteers from all over the country participated in the struggle for Civil Rights on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Dr. Felix Dunn was an African-American physician in Gulfport, Mississippi, who worked closely with Gilbert Mason in civil rights activities on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Dunn served as president of the Gulfport branch of the NAACP and as president of the Harrison County Civic Action Committee. Knox Walker was a white man who was Gilbert Mason's attorney and friend throughout his civil rights struggles. According to Mason: "A man like Knox Walker with fortitude, courage, and devotion to the principle of equal justice for all did not deserve to be smeared by police agencies. . . . Knox Walker also received some overt threats aimed at discouraging his association with me." (Mason, 101)

Robert Pardun was studying at the University of Texas, Austin, when he became a member of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) in 1964. He was originally from Colorado. In the summer of 1964, he worked in Biloxi with the White Folks Project. Samuel C. Shirah proposed the White Comuunity Project, or "White Folks Project" to the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Shirah became involved in civil rights while studying at Birmingham-Southern College. He began working for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in 1963. Shirah was active in the Biloxi area during the Mississippi Summer Project of 1964. The White Community Project's objectives were to help register poor white people to vote and to help poor whites understand the similarities of their living conditions with those of African-Americans. Biloxi was chosen as the area for this experimental project because it was considered to be one of the safest areas in Mississippi to discuss civil rights issues with whites. The group of volunteers experienced harassment, intimidation, threats, and were spied on from the moment of their arrival in Biloxi. According to Pardun, the project never really took off due to lack of interest among the poor white community.

On April 24, 1960, a terrible race riot occurred when 40-50 African-Americans attempted to swim off of the Mississippi Gulf Coast beaches in Biloxi and Gulfport. The whites-only beach became a scene of chaos as angry whites attacked the civil rights activists with sticks, chains, blackjacks, and pool cues. Four were seriously wounded in this incident. The violence continued into the night, and two white men and eight black men suffered gunshot wounds. On April 25, 1960, two firebombs were thrown into the office of Dr. Gilbert Mason in response to his leadership of the wade-ins the day before that resulted in a bloody riot. One firebomb burned itself out. When the other exploded, neighbors quickly put out the flames. After the riots that occurred as a result of the wade-ins in April 1960, the black community in Biloxi boycotted several white-owned businesses instead of planning future wade-ins. Specifically, the group targeted the Borden Milk Company, a large drugstore on Howard Avenue, and a general food and variety store at Nixon and Division Streets. The drugstore fired six black employees after the beach boycott, but it sustained enough business from the white community to survive. The white-owned general food and variety store, however, was put out of business after Biloxi African-Americans refused to shop there. The Borden milk company fired A.A. Dickey, a participant in the beach boycotts. The subsequent boycott put Borden out of business in Biloxi, and Dairy Fresh moved in and thrived there. On May 17, 1960, the Justice Department filed suit in the United States District Court to force equal access of the 26-mile beach of the Mississippi Gulf Coast for all races. After eight years of struggle and litigation, on August 16, 1968, Judge J.P. Coleman ruled that the Mississippi Gulf Coast beach was public property, available for use by all citizens. Coleman was the former Governor of Mississippi and Fifth Court Circuit Court of Appeals.

In the spring of 1960, Dr. Gilbert and Natalie Mason petitioned the school board of the Biloxi public school system on behalf of their son, Gilbert, Jr., that Biloxi public schools be integrated. They wanted African-American children to have the choice to attend white public schools that received more state funds and, consequently, where better education was offered. Many classes like music, art, and physical education were only taught at public schools for white children. On August 31, 1964, four years after the first petition was filed with the Biloxi school board, Biloxi's public schools were integrated through freedom-of-choice desegregation. It was the first act of desegregation in Mississippi. No school based incidents occurred in Biloxi as a result of the desegregation of education.

Sources:

Hyde, Jr., Samuel C., ed. Sunbelt Revolution: The Historical Progression of the Civil Rights Struggle in the Gulf South, 1866-2000. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2003.

Mason, M.D., Gilbert R., and James Patterson Smith. Beaches, Blood, and Ballots: A Black Doctor's Civil Rights Struggle. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2000.



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