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Beaches, Blood, and Ballots

A Black Doctor's Civil Rights Struggle

M.D., Gilbert R. Mason

Publication Year: 2007

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 the Journal of Negro History and the Journal of Mississippi History.

Published by: University Press of Mississippi

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. ix-xiii

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...

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pp. xv-xvii

First of all, I wish to acknowledge and thank God Almighty for my life and for the strength that made this book and all things possible. Second, I want to thank the Mississippi legislature for funding the oral history projects proposed in the budget of the Mississippi Department of Archives...

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1. Beginnings

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pp. 1-18

I am a native Mississippian, born at home at 113 Riggins Alley between Monument Street and Parish Street in Jackson, Mississippi, on October 7, 1928. I was delivered by a black midwife and born into a thoroughly segregated and racist society. From early childhood I realized that discrimination...

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2. Preparation for Service

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pp. 19-34

My older sister, Rozelia, who had been to Chicago many times, accompanied me on the trip. When we rolled into the Twelfth Street station, Rozelia announced that we were going to catch the El, Chicago's elevated public transit system, out to my grandmother's apartment. When I got on...

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3. Going Home to Serve

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pp. 35-48

I believe that providence, acting through a cafeteria worker at Homer Phillips in St. Louis, opened the doors that allowed me to set up a practice in Biloxi, Mississippi, a coastal town with about ten thousand black citizens out of a total population of some forty-three thousand. In 1955, Biloxi...

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4. The Beach

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pp. 49-64

The 1959 wade-in was no fluke or accident. It was premeditated. I had been thinking and talking about such a move from the first time I saw that long, wonderful beach. The intense beauty of the Mississippi Gulf Coast had been one of its attractions for me. When I joined the Gulfport...

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5. The Bloody Wade-In

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pp. 65-87

By Monday evening at 6:00 P.M., when my trial came up in municipal court, it felt as if practically the entire black population of Biloxi had enlisted in my cause. The old Biloxi municipal courthouse sat in the middle of Main Street at its intersection with Howard Avenue. Let me tell you...

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6. Harassment, Lies, and Sovereignty Commission Spies

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pp. 88-111

Sometimes the harassment went beyond threats. Cars would sometimes slow down near our house, get off a gunshot or two, and speed away. On many occasions, I was working late at the office or the hospital when these drive-by shooters appeared. Natalie would call me to report it. Of course...

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7. Ballots, Beaches, and Bullets

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pp. 112-140

Then, I smiled and said, "We were building the new Jerusalem right here in Biloxi." That there was a larger meaning, a larger inspiration for our work seemed to satisfy this inquirer. We did believe in a transcendent and redemptive purpose in our work. We believed that our unjustified suffering...

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8. Desegregation Now!

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pp. 141-167

Aaron Henry used to tell about being born on the Flowers plantation in the Delta. When Aaron began attending school and noticed differences between provisions for black and white children under Mississippi's separate but unequal system, he asked his mother, "Why don't I go to school...

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9. Community Action and Hurricane Camille

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pp. 168-183

The great and menacing bastions of Jim Crowism, poll taxes and literacy tests, along with their attendant indignities and disenfranchisements, had presented obvious and easily identifiable targets for destruction in the late fifties and early sixties. The new frontier of civil rights presented more...

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10. Inclusion, Influence, and Public Responsibilities

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pp. 184-202

To me, the most powerful symbol of a world turning upside down was the appearance of several of President Richard Nixon's closest advisors visiting in my home in back-of-town Biloxi, Mississippi, to discuss an appointment to serve on the president's Mississippi Advisory Committee...

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pp. 203-207

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...

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pp. 209-214


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pp. 215-227

E-ISBN-13: 9781621031291
E-ISBN-10: 1934110280
Print-ISBN-13: 9781934110287

Publication Year: 2007