Deep South Civil Rights Warrior Passes, Leaving a Legacy of Courage & Purpose to All

July 12, 2006

Dr. Gilbert R. Mason Sr., who faced down some of Mississippi's vicious racists when they were at their worst, died July 8.

Mason, 77, is best remembered for organizing wade-ins at Biloxi beaches to protest white-only access. One April 1960 demonstration he led came to be known as "Bloody Sunday" in that area after hundreds of white men attacked Mason and 50 others with chains, iron pipes and other improvised weapons as they swam in the Mississippi Sound. Though not widely publicized, those were the first acts of civil disobedience in the state aimed at ending discriminatory laws.

"Pioneers of Mr. Mason's magnitude and courage are seldom seen," said NAACP President & CEO Bruce S. Gordon. "We are the benefactors of his selflessness and honor his memory. His name may not be known to the masses but the effect of his actions impacted the masses."

Mason was a close friend to former NAACP Field Secretary Medgar Evers who was gunned down outside his Jackson, Miss. home in 1963. "Without people like Dr. Mason, we would not have been able to move forward as we did in Mississippi," Evers' widow Myrlie Evers-Williams, chairwoman emeritus of the national NAACP, said in media reports. "The time has come where so many of the old soldiers are passing on." Mason, a native of Jackson, opened a medical practice in Biloxi in 1955. At the time, black doctors were not admitted to hospital staffs and blacks were not allowed on maternity wards. Mason, with the help of forward-thinking white physicians, changed that.

"The state has five pillars who worked to ensure the discrimination of citizens of Mississippi would no longer exist, and he is one of those five," said Derrick Johnson, president of the Mississippi NAACP. "Aaron Henry, Winston Hudson, Medgar Evers, C.C. Bryant and Gilbert Mason - those are the five who fought for the freedom of Mississippi during a time when it was not popular or safe. And despite many threats on their lives they continued to fight."

Mason didn't stop with integration of Biloxi's beaches. He was at the forefront of public school integration battles in Biloxi during the 1950s and '60s. In 1970, he became the first African American admitted to the Mississippi Academy of Family Physicians. In 1992, he successfully pushed to help Harrison County have its first black and first female supervisor. And he served as the NAACP Biloxi branch president for more than 33 years.

"I recognize that he served at a time when no one else could have done what he did," said James Crowell, a Mason mentee and current NAACP Biloxi branch president. "His tenacity, braveness and lack of fear?he was the one for the time. I can't imagine how he had the courage to do what he did. He suffered threats. He was beaten, jailed. Yet still he stood tall for the people here in Biloxi. Dr. Mason lived and breathed the NAACP."

"As a young person growing up in the NAACP, I got my inspiration from him," said NAACP Southeast Regional Director Rev. Charles White. "He was the heralded civil rights leader of that community. He was a skillful parliamentarian who kept us focused and on point. He was an investor in young people and always expected young people to do their best."

In 2000 Mason published his autobiography Beaches, Blood and Ballots: A Black Doctor's Civil Rights Struggle.

In a 2000 interview with The Clarion-Ledger, a local newspaper, Mason recalled the state's history in which he played such a pivotal role. "We've been a part of Mississippi soil and grit for over 100 years," the offspring of a Mississippi slave said. "This is the day the Lord has made. I will be proud and rejoice in it."

Mason's involvement in the community extended beyond his human-rights efforts and medical practice. He had a lifelong interest in scouting, was active in education, the USO and Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity.

A public viewing will take place Friday (July 14) from 3-9 p.m. at St. John's AME Church (located at 551 Division St. near the intersection with Lee St.) in Biloxi with a brief service to occur at 7 p.m. Private burial services will be held Saturday. A community wide memorial service is planned in Mason's honor later this month.

Mason's epitaph, which he believed summed up his life, will read: "Physician and citizen."

Founded in 1909, the NAACP is the nation's oldest and largest civil rights organization. Its members throughout the United States and the world are the premier advocates for civil rights in their communities, conducting voter mobilization and monitoring equal opportunity in the public and private sectors.

CONTACT: NAACP Office of Communications 410.580.5125

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