Remembering Beaches as Battlegrounds for Civil Rights

Clemon Jimerson still remembers his first time on the beach in Biloxi, Mississippi. It was April 24, 1960—Easter Sunday—and a local physician had organized a gathering of more than 120 people on three sections of the 26-mile shoreline. Jimerson was 14 years old then, and he marked the occasion with a brand new swimsuit and a top-of-the-line, gold-banded Elgin watch.

Jimerson lived just two miles from the beach, but Jim Crow laws barred him and the rest of the black community from visiting. (Blacks were allowed on a small part of the beach that was some 10 miles away from his neighborhood.) That led the physician—a man named Dr. Gilbert Mason, who would become one of the leading civil rights activists in Mississippi—to plan a “wade-in” as both an act of civil disobedience and a family event. Women, children, and teenagers therewere “just having a good time,” Jimerson recalls.

At worst, the protesters expected to be ordered off the beach by police, and maybe some arrests. That was what happened in the two previous wade-ins. What they didn’t see coming was a mob of white men armed with clubs, brass knuckles, and bricks.

That day would come to be known as Bloody Sunday.

Nearly six decades later, Biloxi Beach is open to everyone, and while it’s a popular spot among locals, few who visit are aware of the sacrifices that made that possible. To keep that history alive, a new initiative called Witnessing the Beach aims to bring the stories of Jimerson and the other wade-in participants—or witnesses, as they’re called—into the forefront. With help from a $100,000 grant from the Knight Cities Challenge, the project involves building a pop-up stage with chairs and a roll-out, wheelchair-accessible surface on which organizers will host regular meet-ups with tourists, local residents, and community activists who still live in the area.

“There are some really amazing people in this community who have been part of its history,” says project leader David Perkes, founding director of Gulf Coast Community Design Studio and a professor at Mississippi State University. He’s been working with the residents there to rebuild the community in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. “The beach as a kind of public space now is taken for granted, and [the project] brings attention to the fact that this space had to be fought for.”

The Greensboro sit-ins, the Freedom Rides, and the integration of Little Rock Central High School are all familiar events in the conversation about civil rights history. Less known is the fact that beaches and other recreational spaces, including parks and skating rinks, also became battlegrounds for equal rights. And it wasn’t just in Biloxi—the black community also fought to end segregation of the beaches in cities across the country, from Miami and Fort Lauderdale to Chicago and Santa Monica.

The wade-ins on Biloxi Beach were, in fact, Mississippi’s first organized act of civil disobedience in the civil rights era. There were three in total between 1959 and 1963—four if you count the time that Mason went to the beach alone and got arrested, an incident that sparked action in the rest of the community. And while marches and bus boycotts were led by prominent names like Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks, the frontlines of these protests were made up of mothers, children, and teenagers like Jimerson. (These were the groups that Mason, who passed away in 2006, approached when organizing; men, who were often the breadwinners, risked retribution from their employers.) For them, it was a fight not only over the right to use public space, but also over their right to leisure.

Read more at City Lab.