Remembering the Struggles and Looking Back With Dr. Gilbert Mason, Jr.

The people of the State of Mississippi have long been known for their tenacity, strength and fortitude. In honor of Black History Month, we look back on some of the struggles that were hard fought and hard won by the African American people of Mississippi.
The 1950’s and 60’s ushered in an era of equality and made the citizens of our state reflect upon their history and choose sides in how their future would be written. The entire country was grappling with the past and trying to forge ahead the best way they could. Everyone it seemed, had an opinion on civil rights and many weren’t afraid to speak their minds on the subject. That willingness to speak out and the repercussions of those actions fell hard on those in our beloved south.
Martin Luther King, Jr. was coming to the forefront of the civil rights movement. In December of 1951, the Regional Council of Negro Leadership (RCNL) was founded in Cleveland, Mississippi by T.R.M. Howard, Amzie Moore, Aaron Henry and other civil right activists. Assisted by member, Medgar Evers, the RCNL distributed 50,000 bumper stickers that read “Don’t buy gas where you can’t use the restroom.”
By May of 1955, the civil rights movement was headed down a path that today seems indescribable. It was on the 7th of that month that NAACP and RCNL activist, Reverend George W. Lee was killed in Belzoni, Mississippi. In December of that same year, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus, starting the Montgomery Bus Boycott.
Ideas like freedom from discrimination, the rights of all persons to vote, equal access to public facilities and equality in employment, education and housing fueled the hearts and minds of African-Americans everywhere.
1959 saw unrest and public statements in many different forms. Berry Gordy formed Motown. To Kill a Mockingbird was published and the play, A Raisin in the Sun, by Lorraine Hansberry, debuted on Broadway.
By 1960, the country was deep into a civil rights battle that would thrust leaders of the movement into the light of many southern states judiciary meetings. Martin Luther King, Jr. would meet then senator, John F. Kennedy. Sit-ins at a Woolworth’s lunch counter would be headline news in Greensboro, North Carolina and beyond. Martin Luther King was jailed and subsequently released on bond after intervention by Robert F. Kennedy.
Here in south Mississippi, the signs of strife and dissention gripped an already uneasy society. The sit-ins and protests seemed so far away yet too close to home for some. A local physician, Dr. Gilbert Mason, Sr., believed strongly in equality and civil rights. He had brought his family to the Coast in 1955 because he was drawn to the beaches. Dr. Mason, the son of a barber, grew up in Jackson, Mississippi and he wanted to be close to his family. Gilbert was one of three children and proved himself to be the studious one of the bunch. Always reading and forever full of ideas, he discovered a love of music and art at a young age.
Gilbert Mason, Sr. attended Tennessee State University as a young adult and there met his future wife. She changed colleges and went on to graduate with a degree in social work from Howard University in Washington, D.C. The two married after their graduations and Gilbert began attending Howard University Medical School.
By the time the couple had moved to the Mississippi Gulf Coast, they had a 1 year old son. Gilbert Mason, Jr. was a lively youngster who loved to sit with his father and listen to classical music and popular tunes from the greats like Lena Horne and Nat King Cole.
Dr. Mason, Sr.’s journey through the 50’s and 60’s was fraught with unimaginable challenges and heartache. It was during a very different time, a shameful time in our nation’s history. Sadly, the great state of Mississippi was at the center of it all. We sincerely thank Dr. Mason, Jr. for his candor and truth on this very serious and deeply sensitive subject.
“When we came here to Biloxi, there were only segregated waiting rooms and no hospital for blacks. There was only a small house on Division Street that was maintained as an infirmary for people of color,” Dr. Mason, Jr. said. “Dad made house calls after his regular office hours. He was home for dinner then he’d go out to take care of his patients again.”
Dr. Mason, Sr. began his involvement in the civil rights movement because he felt that it just wasn’t right that schools were segregated, public accommodations were not equal and that there wasn’t a part of the beach that he and his wife could take his young son. He felt that since the beach had been built and maintained with public funds that the entire body of the public should be able to use any part of it.
On May 14, 1959, Dr. Mason, Sr. organized the first “wade-in” on the Coast. He took his son and walked onto the beach to play. Not long after they stepped onto the sand, Dr. Mason and the other participants were forcibly removed and his son sent home with some friends. There were only 9 people at that first “wade-in”. The two Masons had made history even if they didn’t know it at the time. Dr. Mason, Sr. contacted a professor he knew at Howard University and asked if the forced removal of the protesters was illegal.
On Easter Sunday, April 17th of 1960, the doctor and his son returned for another “wade-in” to protest the inability for people of color to use all parts of the beach. Dr. Mason was arrested and sent to jail for his defiance of the law. The following Sunday would be a catalyst for change that local’s call “Bloody Sunday”. Dr. Mason’s arrest awakened others who felt the same as he did and caused the number of participants to rise at the next “wade-in.”
On April 24th, over 125 African-Americans gathered at the beach in Biloxi. Participation in the series of “wade-ins” was growing and violence soon put the protests to an abrupt end. While the 125 plus protesters frolicked at the beach another protest was being waged in downtown Gulfport. The Gulfport protest was headed by another African American physician, Dr. Felix Dunn.
The protesters were stationed strategically along the beachfront: in front of the cemetery, lighthouse and the hospital. Dr. Mason monitored the groups of protesters from his vehicle as he drove from on station to another and then back again. Some participants swam while others just took in the sun’s rays and talked, ate food they had brought with them or played games.
The mood quickly changed as bands of white men and boys began arriving at the protest sights. Bloody carnage ensued all along the beach as the two forces battled. Wives tried to shield their husbands beaten bodies from the gruesome onslaught. The whites outnumbered the African-Americans as chains were wielded, bats were swung and tire tools flew through the air landing crushing blows.
When the bloody sand had settled, Dr. Mason began tending to the injured. Police tried to take the doctor to jail but he asked them only to allow him to tend to the wounded first. He was allowed to bind and sew the wounds, take the most critical patients for further care, and then turn himself in to the police the next morning.
In the Mason household there were many visitors that year and throughout the 60’s. Representatives from the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and the Justice Department sat at the kitchen table having coffee and cold drinks as a young Gilbert Mason, Jr. quietly listened and watched. “Those amazing people were always in the house talking about civil right issues,” Dr. Mason, Jr. said. “We used to get hang up calls and callers who would shout horrible things. Dad was out of town or at the hospital a lot in those days so it was hard. Dad’s car was burned after the wade-ins and that was scary but mom was always reassuring.”
Dr. Mason, Jr. wants young people to be well educated about American history, both the good and the bad. He urges kids to ask questions and talk to people who experienced those terrible times of prejudice. “If you want to know about the way things used to be back then… ASK,” he said.
Dr. Gilbert Mason, Sr. helped found the Biloxi Chapter of the NAACP, and was put in place as it’s first president. He served in that capacity for 34 years.

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