Beaches, Blood, and Ballots

Beaches, Blood, and Ballots: A Black Doctor's Civil Rights Struggle

Gilbert R. Mason
with James Patterson Smith
Copyright Date: 2000
https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt2tvfrh
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  • Book Info
    Beaches, Blood, and Ballots
    Book Description:

    This book, the first to focus on the integration of the Gulf Coast, is Dr. Gilbert R. Mason's eyewitness account of harrowing episodes that occurred there during the civil rights movement. Newly opened by court order, documents from the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission's secret files enhance this riveting memoir written by a major civil rights figure in Mississippi. He joined his friends and allies Aaron Henry and the martyred Medgar Evers to combat injustices in one of the nation's most notorious bastions of segregation.

    In Mississippi, the civil rights struggle began in May 1959 with "wade-ins." In open and conscious defiance of segregation laws, Mason led nine black Biloxians onto a restricted spot along the twenty-six-mile beach. A year later more wade-ins on beaches reserved for whites set off the bloodiest race riot in the state's history and led the U.S. Justice Department to initiate the first-ever federal court challenge of Mississippi's segregationist laws and practices. Simultaneously, Mason and local activists began their work on the state's first school desegregation suit. As the coordinator of the strategy, he faced threats to his life.

    Mason's memoir gives readers a documented journey through the daily humiliations that segregation and racism imposed upon the black populace -- upon fathers, mothers, children, laborers, and professionals. Born in 1928 in the slums of Jackson, Mason acknowledges the impact of his strong extended family and of the supportive system of institutions in the black neighborhood. They nurtured him to manhood and helped fulfill his dream of becoming a physician.

    His story recalls the great migration of blacks to the North, of family members who remained in Mississippi, of family ties in Chicago and other northern cities. Following graduation from Tennessee State and Howard University Medical College, he set up his practice in the black section of Biloxi in 1955 and experienced the restrictions that even a black physician suffered in the segregated South. Four years later, he began his battle to dismantle the Jim Crow system. This is the story of his struggle and hard-won victory.

    Gilbert R. Mason, M.D., continues as a practicing physician in Biloxi. Although a life-long Democrat, he served as a school-desegregation adviser to the Republican administration of President Nixon, as well as a friend, adviser, and appointee of several Mississippi governors.

    James Patterson Smith is an associate professor of history at the University of Southern Mississippi. He has published in numerous periodicals, including theJournal of Negro Historyand theJournal of Mississippi History.

    eISBN: 978-1-62103-129-1
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Foreword
    (pp. ix-xiv)
    James Patterson Smith

    On Thursday, May 14, 1959, eight months before four students from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College launched the Greensboro lunch counter sit-ins, nine black citizens of Biloxi, Mississippi, ventured onto a forbidden spot on a twenty-six-mile-long segregated beach in open and conscious defiance of Mississippi’s Jim Crow practices. Police removed these swimmers from the Mississippi Gulf Coast beach and warned them against returning. At a time when, out of approximately ten thousand black residents of Biloxi, three were members of the NAACP, there followed months of mass meetings, public petitioning, and community-wide planning to challenge the banning of blacks...

  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xv-xx)
  5. ONE Beginnings
    (pp. 1-18)

    “DR. MASON, WHEN DID YOU BECOME A CIVIL RIGHTS ACtivist?” This is the question a white nurse posed last spring when, after practicing medicine in Biloxi, Mississippi, for forty-three years, I found myself a hospital patient. Many people in Mississippi know that Gilbert R. Mason, the black doctor from Biloxi, was for thirty-three years a vice president of the Mississippi Conference of the NAACP and a close associate of Medgar Evers and Aaron Henry. Medgar Evers’s last Sunday night on this earth was spent at my house, and I served as a pallbearer at his funeral. In Biloxi they know...

  6. TWO Preparation for Service
    (pp. 19-34)

    I WAS ONE SORE DUDE THE NIGHT I GOT ON THE TRAIN to make the trip from Jackson to Chicago to stay with Little Mama, my dad’s mother, and work in the summer of 1945. I was sixteen years old and had just graduated from high school. That day I had gone out to Sis’s farm to say good-bye. I had made the mistake of riding old Dan one last time. Old Dan was the horse my daddy owned and kept at my grandmother’s place. Old Dan was in one of those moods where every time I got a little...

  7. THREE Going Home to Serve
    (pp. 35-48)

    IN THE SUMMER OF 1955, I CAME HOME TO MISSISSIPPI to practice medicine. I wanted to come back. Mississippi’s infant mortality rates were high. At the time of my decision to return, I expressly pointed out three guiding goals for my medical practice: I wanted to see healthy babies, healthy mothers, and good housing for my mothers and babies. This meant good prenatal care, safe deliveries, and good neonatal care. I needed to be able to get staff privileges in a hospital to deliver babies. For black doctors at this time, hospital staff privileges were rare, whether you were in...

  8. FOUR The Beach
    (pp. 49-64)

    FRIENDS AND FAMILY MEMBERS IN CHICAGO AND WASHington had told me that I would not tolerate the limits that Jim Crowism would impose on my life if I returned to Mississippi. In 1955 the world was changing, and I knew it. The courts were ruling in case after case that segregation violated the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. As an idealistic young physician, I had no intention of living my life or seeing my son live his life within the narrow confines laid out by racist segregation laws. Thus, in May of 1959, four...

  9. FIVE The Bloody Wade-In
    (pp. 65-87)

    I WAS ALONE WHEN I WENT ONTO BILOXI BEACH ON SUNday, April 17. I was not alone when I went to court the next night. Something was happening to the spirits of people in the back-of-town section where I lived and worked. On the Monday after my arrest, a group of teenagers from Nichols High School stopped by my office to see me between patients. Ethel Rainey, and, I believe, James Black were in this group. Ethel did most of the talking. I think that she summarized a feeling in the black community about my arrest when she said, “We’ve...

  10. SIX Harassment, Lies, and Sovereignty Commission Spies
    (pp. 88-111)

    AFTER THE WEEK OF THE BLOODY WADE-IN OF APRIL 1960, my volunteer security group guarded me around the clock for twelve straight months. Natalie and I started sending our child to Mrs. Blanche Elzy’s house to sleep at times when the threats increased or were particularly intense. Mr. Elzy was one of my guards. Gilbert, Jr., never knew why he got to sleep over at Mrs. Elzy’s so often. He just knew that he liked her, she liked him, he loved the food, and he had great fun playing with her grandchildren. For those who love their family, threatening calls...

  11. [Illustrations]
    (pp. None)
  12. SEVEN Ballots, Beaches, and Bullets
    (pp. 112-140)

    NOTHING WORTHWHILE COMES WITHOUT A STRUGGLE. Some struggles are physical. Some struggles are moral. Some struggles are legal and political. Every struggle is a spiritual struggle, a test of faith and will. Recently, a white friend twenty years younger than I heard me speak of the sad events of the bloody wade-in and of the simultaneous struggle we undertook for voter registration and school desegregation in Biloxi. Somewhat taken aback to learn how broad an assault we had launched against segregation in 1960, this white gentleman probed to understand why it was that we had been prepared to risk so...

  13. EIGHT Desegregation Now!
    (pp. 141-167)

    SOMEONE ONCE ASKED CHARLES EVERS, “WHAT DO YOU black folks want?” Charles answered, “Well, what have you got? We want what you’ve got without any strings attached.” We wanted segregation destroyed so that black folks might enjoy the same opportunities that were available to other Americans. Most of us in the civil rights movement used the worddesegregationto describe our goals rather than the wordintegration.We wanted to remove those barriers, de facto and de jure, which denied African Americans their full birthright as citizens of these United States. Access to the best that the public schools had...

  14. NINE Community Action and Hurricane Camille
    (pp. 168-183)

    On the national level, the disillusionment of the left wing of the civil rights movement after 1965 was balanced by a tendency of some moderates and conservatives to conclude that the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the Open Housing Act of 1968 meant that the movement was finished. Comfortable conservative voices argued that there was now no more need for a civil rights agenda. To those on the left who argued that the alliance with white liberalism was useless and that traditional organizations such as the NAACP were ineffective and...

  15. TEN Inclusion, Influence, and Public Responsibilities
    (pp. 184-202)

    WHEN GEORGE WASHINGTON’S RAGTAG ARMY TOOK THE surrender of the British troops at Yorktown during the American Revolution, a British army band played a tune called “The World Turned Upside Down.” As a part of the second American Revolution, the civil rights revolution of the 1960s, I never heard that tune played, but I certainly understood its meaning. The world of Mississippi politics literally turned upside down in the late 1960s. A poor black boy delivered by a midwife on Riggins Alley in Jackson, Mississippi, had made his way from sitting in the back of the bus to receiving a...

  16. Epilogue
    (pp. 203-208)

    Last year, in preparation for the tricentennial of the founding of the first French settlement on the Gulf Coast, the Mississippi Department of Archives and History opened an exhibit in the Old Capitol Museum celebrating the three cultures which came together with the colonial settlement of Mississippi and Louisiana—Native American, European, and African. As a member of the board of the department of archives and history, I attended the opening ceremony. The Old Capitol is a building whose bricks were laid by slave hands. It is the building where the secession vote was taken at the beginning of the...

  17. Notes
    (pp. 209-214)
  18. Index
    (pp. 215-227)