A Civil Rights Watershed in Biloxi, Mississippi

Frustrated by the segregated shoreline, black residents stormed the beaches and survived brutal attacks on "Bloody Sunday"

The black community in 1960 were relegated to mere swatches of sand and surf on the Biloxi beach. After a series of "wade-in" protests, violence ensued. (AP Images)

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One member of the approaching white mob soon struck McDaniel—the opening salvo in a brutal barrage. “I saw McDaniel beaten to within an inch of his life,” said Black. “He fell, and was hit with chains, and the sand became bloody.” As the attack persisted, McDaniel’s pleading wife shielded his body with hers.

As the mob pursued Jimerson across the highway, where traffic had all but halted, he heard a white adult urge his assailant, “You better catch that nigger. You better not let him get away.” In one terrifying moment, Jimerson didn’t think he would. Heading toward an unlikely sanctuary—houses dating back to before the Civil War on the highway’s other side —a fence blocked Jimerson’s route, one he knew he couldn’t scale. “There was nothing I could do. I said my prayer and balled my fist.” He swung and missed, but the attempt made him tumble, and sent his would-be combatants scattering.

After the melee, Dr. Mason treated injured patients. Jimerson searched with his stepfather for his newly purchased ensemble, only to find it part of a pyre, burning within a white column of smoke. “Son, I’ll tell you what,” Jimerson’s stepfather said. “We can get you another watch. We can’t get you another life.”

When night fell, riots rose up. White mobs rolled through black neighborhoods, issuing threats and firing guns. Former Mississippi Governor William Winter, who served as state tax collector at the time, recalls feeling “great admiration for the courage” of the protesters, dovetailing with “disappointment, even disgust, that a group of people would deny them access to the beach. Not only deny them access, but inflict physical violence.”

The event was galvanizing. One white merchant’s involvement in the assaults galled the community, triggering a boycott of his store located in Biloxi’s African-American section. “This man was part of the gang, beating on us,” said Black. “And he still had the audacity to come back the next evening, and open his store.” Not for long: the boycott forced him to shutter his business.

A Biloxi NAACP branch formed swiftly after Bloody Sunday, with Mason installed as president, a title he held for 34 years. An October letter to Mason from Medgar Evers suggests the tipping point this protest represented: “If we are to receive a beating,” wrote Evers, “lets receive it because we have done something, not because we have done nothing.” A final wade-in followed Evers’ 1963 assassination, though the issue of beach access was only settled five years later, in federal court.

Though the wade-ins were sandwiched by the Greensboro lunch counter sit-ins and the famed Freedom Riders, the protests have gone largely unheralded, even though they served as a litmus test for future segregation challenges. Crowell, Mason’s handpicked successor as branch president, and a member of the NAACP’s national board of directors, believes the sheer volume of statewide dissent diminished the wade-ins notoriety. As he succinctly summarized: “Black people here in Mississippi were always involved in a struggle of some type.”

Current efforts have further commemorated this struggle. A historic marker, unveiled in 2009, honored “Bloody Sunday” and its hard-won achievement. The year prior, a stretch of U.S. Highway 90 was named after Mason. Governor Winter hopes the overdue recognition continues. “It is another shameful chapter in our past,” said Winter. “Those events need to be remembered, so that another generation—black and white—can understand how much progress we’ve made.”

Black echoed and extended this sentiment. “A price was paid for the privileges and rights we enjoy, and those that paid the price should be remembered.”


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