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Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it. Proverbs 22:6
"DR. MASON, WHEN DID YOU BECOME A CIVIL RIGHTS ACTIVIST?"This is the question a white nurse posed last spring when, afterpracticing medicine in Biloxi, Mississippi, for forty-three years, I foundmyself a hospital patient. Many people in Mississippi know that GilbertR. Mason, the black doctor from Biloxi, was for thirty-three years a vicepresident of the Mississippi Conference of the NAACP and a close associateof Medgar Evers and Aaron Henry. Medgar Evers's last Sunday nighton this earth was spent at my house, and I served as a pallbearer at hisfuneral. In Biloxi they know that I was one of the founders, and for thirty-threeyears the president, of the Biloxi branch of the NAACP. Local folksknow that I organized Mississippi's first nonviolent civil disobediencecampaign, the wade-ins on Biloxi beach beginning in 1959, to gain equalaccess to God's Gulf Coast beaches for all of his children. We endured andpersevered to victory through a tidal wave of threats, violence, and reprisalsfrom mad-dog segregationists. Local people will recall the success ofour targeted economic boycotts against the encouragers and perpetratorsof assaults on and intimidation of black citizens engaged in peaceful proteston the beach. Many in Biloxi remember that in 1960, well before thefreedom summers and the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965, we undertooksuccessful voter registration drives in Biloxi thatgave black folks thepower to replace their worst enemies in the local political establishment.Many also recall that in August of 1964, Biloxi's schools became the firstin Mississippi to admit black children to formerly all-white classrooms.School desegregation came first to Biloxi because I joined early withMedgar Evers and Mrs. Winston Hudson in the first lawsuit challengingMississippi's system of enforced racial segregation and inequality in publicschools. For over forty years, local people have seen this black doctor fromBiloxi uphold the cause of human rights before local, state, and nationalboards and commissions. These are some of the facts of my life. My nurseknew most of the bare facts. She wanted to understand more.
"So, Dr. Mason, when did you become a civil rights activist?" Manypeople ask me such questions because they really want to know why I andother local leaders across the South became involved in the civil rightsstruggle, why and how we took the risks we took, and why and how weachieved success against a white power structure steeped in a vile andsinister racist ideology. Born in the 1920s and 1930s we were the "freedomboomers," not baby boomers, arriving on the scene with a yearning forfreedom and equality burning in our breasts. From where did our commitmentcome? Thankfully, the new generation has no memory of themost vicious and humiliating aspects of legally enforced segregation andits corollary of legalized second-class citizenship against which my generationstruggled. Still, the ugly and hurtful residues of racism remain. Thisbook represents my personal effort to reach out to a new generation ofblack and white youth to help build understanding and to affirm that,having weathered many dangers, storms, and fears, I still have hope forMississippi and hope for America.
"So, Dr. Mason, when did you become a civil rights activist?" It seemssuch a simple question, but the answer is complicated. I didn't just becomea civil rights activist one day. We are individuals, you know, andthere is so much that goes into making the individual: the way you live;your parents and family; the nurturing and examples you receive fromneighborhood, community, church, teachers, preachers, Scout leaders; thefaith and the ideals you develop; the people you adopt as heroes. All ofthese play a part in making us who we are.
I am a native Mississippian, born at home at 113 Riggins Alley betweenMonument Street and Farish Street in Jackson, Mississippi, on October 7,1928. I was delivered by a black midwife and born into a thoroughly segregatedand racist society. From early childhood I realized that discriminationand segregation were not right. As a schoolboy I could not reconcilethe practices of Mississippi with the promises of the U.S. Constitution andthe Declaration of Independence. By the time I was in high school, Ihad begun to believe that we should defy segregationist laws and customswherever possible.
The world I saw as a child left no doubt in my mind that segregationand humiliation went hand in hand. In 1932, when I was four years old,my daddy and a local grocer with some other friends decided that theywould go to Chicago to see Joe Louis fight the Uruguayan boxer UzGudan. Though my grandparents had moved to Chicago, I had neverbeen to see them. My daddy got his friends to agree that I could go along.I got into the backseat of that new Chevrolet sedan and went to sleep.When I woke up, I could sense something wrong. As we got closer toIllinois near the Ohio River, the men began to whisper. Cairo, Illinois,had a reputation for beating up on black folks and for race riots andlynchings. I remember they told me to get down on the floor. I got downon the floor. We went on to Chicago safely, but getting down on that carfloor had made an impression.
Back home in Jackson, at some point in early childhood I discoveredthat legal segregation, or the Jim Crow system, meant that I could not usethe public parks or swimming pools. Battlefield Park was the public parknearest to me, but we as black folks couldn't play there. Because blackkids in Jackson had no public pools available to us, I learned to swim inan old swim hole called the "bowlegged weed" where a storm-ravagedtree bent out over a dangerously steep bank descending to a stream runningsouth from the Goudy brickyard pond. I remember being distinctlydisturbed as a Boy Scout because my friend Joseph Debro and I had towait six months to get the merit badge in lifesaving and camping becausethe black Boy Scout camp, Camp Lubaloo near Clinton, did not have anycertified lifesavers to train us. Our scoutmasters had to appeal to the areaScout executive to allow certified lifesavers from the white Scout camp,Camp Kickapoo, two miles down the road, to certify us. Successful completionof those badges after a long and frustrating wait meant that JosephDebro and I became Eagle Scouts; it was the first time blacks had done soin Jackson and the second time in Mississippi.
Everywhere we went, Jim Crow laws told us what we could and couldnot do. Of course, all of the restaurants in Jackson were "white only." Idon't recall being able to even walk up to a window to get served. Manydepartment stores would not let us try on clothes before buyingnot evenladies' hats. Some stores on Capitol Street wouldn't serve black people atall. As late as 1958, when I was already a practicing physician, I went downon Capitol Street to buy a tie to wear for my daddy's funeral, and thestore wouldn't even sell me a tie. Hotels and motels routinely refused usaccommodations if we traveled. Gas stations had "colored" rest roomsand "colored" water fountains, and there were "colored" waiting roomsin bus and train stations and in white doctors' offices. Streetcar and busdrivers sent us to the back and placed moveable signs on the seats marked"colored" on one side and "white" on the other. The signs were movedbackward and forward depending on how many white folks were aboard.If seats were in short supply, whites sat while blacks stood up for the ride.At Baptist Hospital sick black patients got treatment only in the basementuntil R. H. Green, a white businessman with a lot of black employees,donated the money to build the R. H. Green Annex so there would be adecent place where colored people could be sick and die. I remember myfolks took me there once when I fell out of a tree and they thought I hadbroken a collarbone.
I finished high school in Jackson's segregated and unequal publicschool system. Oh, I had many wonderful and dedicated teachers at SallyReynolds Elementary School, Jim Hill Junior High School, and LanierHigh School. Still, we knew that our teachers were not paid fairly and thatour equipment was second-rate compared to what the white schools had.In high school particularly, I became aware that we were getting the hand-me-downchemistry instrumentsused flasks, retorts, and Bunsen burnersandwe even got used desks. We did not go to the white public library.We used the little library at our school or went to the one at JacksonState College. In football we received the thrown-off togs, jerseys, helmets,and shoes from Central High School, which was a so-called white highschool in Jackson. The shoes, I remember, were badly used. Many timesthey had missing cleats or no cleats at all, so we would repair them, thendye and polish them up.
The all-black Lanier football team practiced on a cinder-ridden field inback of the school. The cinders had been covered with a layer of dirt, butevery now and then a cinder would come through and cut you when youhit the ground. I carry scars now from that practice field. We did not havea school stadium, so we played all of our games at Jackson State's stadiumor at what was called the Mississippi Colored State Fairgrounds. That'sright, there was a "colored" fair and a white fair. The Mississippi ColoredState Fairgrounds was out on Highway 49 near what is now Medgar EversBoulevard. We played before a black audience mainly, but our games werewell supported and open to all people. Since there were no bleachers,people usually just stood on the sidelines, so there wasn't a question ofwhite versus black seating. We did not have a gym at Lanier either. Weplayed our basketball games at Holy Ghost High School gym on AshStreet, or we played at Jackson State's gym. Holy Ghost was the all-blackCatholic school about a block and a half from our campus. I don't recallever going to see Central High or any other white school play in Jackson.
We had problems sometimes because our Lanier school colors weremaroon and white like Mississippi State's, and like them, we called ourteam the Bulldogs. If you lettered at Lanier, you became a member of the"L" Club and wore a maroon-and-white jacket with a bulldog and a big"L" stitched on it. My older brother was a four-year letterman, but I wasusually a second string end and only lettered one year. Downtown onCapitol Street, there were occasions when white guys calling themselvesMississippi State alumni would try to pull the maroon-and-white Lanierjacket off one of our boys, even though there was plainly an "L" and notan "M" on it.
In this environment, when did I become a civil rights activist? I knowthat as a boy I got into a lot of fights in my own neighborhood. As a littlefellow I had wrestled with my big brother, who was six years older. Bulliesin our section of town knew that I'd fight them in a minute. They didn'tpick on me. Many times though, I fought to defend a little timid friend ofmine, Charlie Magee, on Cox Street (I lived on Booker), or because peoplewere picking on my cousin, Christia B. Ratliff, who lived behind me. Bullieshave a tendency to pick on people of gentle character or who lookweak. After I was grown and in medical practice, a childhood frienddropped by the office one day and told me that a Jackson minister's wife,the widow of Reverend Steen, who had lived across the street from meback then, was asked what I was like as a boy. This preacher's wife said,"He won't lie, he won't cheat, he won't steal, and he don't take no shit."That was my reputation as a boy. The bullies didn't pick on me, becauseI didn't "take no shit."
Segregation was a legalized bully system. Even before I went to highschool I saw how, in the minds of some white people, legalized Jim Crowqualified black people for capricious humiliation and degradation. Whendid I become an activist? Was it that day when I was twelve years old andbent over to pump air into my bicycle tires at a Gulf station on TerryRoad, and a big white guy slipped up from behind and kicked me over?When I turned to ask, "Why?" his smug answer, "'Cause I wanted to,"made a lasting impression. His interpretation of Jim Crow gave him aspecial privilege to bully. I soon started doing small things to defy thesystem.
Under Jim Crow the law dictated some aspects of race relationsseatingon buses, separate schools, and the like. Still, you just never quiteknew when some white person's unique idea of racial etiquette/degradationwould jump up to entangle, humiliate or threaten you. As a thirteen-year-old,I got a job delivering groceries on my bicycle for Ritter's Groceryin a white neighborhood on Terry Road near its intersection with SilasBrown Street. One evening near dark I made a delivery to a white lady. AsI stood on her porch trying to make change in the dark, she got madbecause I was too slow to suit her. "Give me that money," she snapped,"I'll count it myself." I said, "Lady, I can count," and handed her thecorrect coins. Offended, she snarled, "That's what's wrong with yousmart-aleck young niggers," and she called the store to complain. Thenext day at the store, my white boss's wife issued a reprimand punctuatedwith a veiled threat. "Gilbert, be careful," she warned. Then, pointingdown the road toward the Pearl River, she added these ominous words:"They took one colored boy down there, and they never heard from himagain." What hard words for any mother's young son to hear come fromthe mouth of an adult. Even at age thirteen, I knew that the Pearl Riverhad become the premature grave of many blacks. I knew the boss's wifeintended to intimidate me with that threat. White folks, she made clear,would not put up with uppitiness from me. With my boyish reply to awhite customer's impatience, I had inadvertently broken the rules of racialsubordination to the extent that my life was threatened.
Some days later the peculiarities of segregationist racial etiquette ranme afoul of the white store manager himself. My daddy, a strong-willedman that white folks didn't mess with, had taught me to be polite andrespectful to all people but subservient to none. He insisted that I addressgrown-ups, black or white, as "Mr.," "Mrs.," or "Miss So-and-So." Whencalled or questioned, I was to reply, "Yes, Mrs. Smith" or "No, Mr.Smith." This ran square into the peculiar ideas of my white boss at Ritter'sGrocery. It took awhile, but one day he noticed that the words "sir" and"ma'am" were never in my vocabulary when answering his customers.Once he caught on, he confronted me and insisted that I address his wifeas "ma'am." I defied him. I called her "Mrs." He turned and hit meupside the head so hard that it burst my eardrum. Hurting, enraged, Iinstinctively reached for the pocketknife I sometimes carried for protectionagainst mugging. In pain, I fumbled with the pocket but couldn't getthe knife out before the white man walked off. But for the grace of God,what might have become of me if in that moment my hand had foundthat knife? I left that store and never went back. My dad wanted to sue,but the only witness was afraid to testify.
I tried working for a while as a carhop at a burger joint near the intersectionthat used to be called Five Points (where Medgar Evers Boulevardjoins Woodrow Wilson Avenue). The attitude of the customers got to me.I did not like people calling me "nigger" or "boy." They would yell,"Hurry up, boy," or "Boy, turn your hat around so you'll look like you'recoming all the time." I soon quit the carhop business. I wouldn't "takeno shit," but was I a civil rights activist yet?
In high school I took a notion to go to the white state fair in Jackson.As I have said, in those days Mississippi state fairs were segregated. Thetwo fairgrounds were miles apart. The black state fair had animal displaysand traditional rides, cotton candy, and hamburgers with onions. But Idecided to see the white state fair. I got in okay, and I was walking downthe fairway when some big white guy came uphe was bigger than I was,and he just willy-nilly hit me in the jaw and muttered, "You're not supposedto be here. You got your own fair." That was my first and last timegoing to the so-called white fair.
However, I had other scrapes with Jim Crow insanity. In high school Irode the city bus to school. The bus route was called Whitfield-Mill-Lynchand ran from an industrial area on Mill Street, where it picked up somewhite riders, to Ash Street, turning onto Lynch into a black neighborhoodwhere the all-black Jim Hill School used to be located and where the blackMasonic Temple is now. On that route in the 1940s, many times I andothers my age defied the driver and the laws of Mississippi to sit in frontof the "colored" sign. The driver would get angry and yell, "You're violatingthe law. You can't sit in front of that sign." I remember distinctly oneday when there was a white man sitting in front of the sign; some of myschoolmates and I got up and went forward to his section. He said, "Youcan't ignore me, I'm a white man." We said, "So what." He got up. Thedriver stopped. The white man got off.
We got away with it, but this kind of bucking of the system on busescould be quite dangerous. Twenty years later the burned-out buses andmass arrests of freedom riders showed the risk. However, long before thatera, young Medgar Evers defied the color line, riding a bus from Meridianto Jackson in front of the sign. The driver stopped the bus and beatMedgar with his fists. When Medgar still wouldn't move, the driver calledthe police and had him arrested. One of my fraternity brothers tells aboutriding a bus to Camp Shelby at Hattiesburg, Mississippi, for inductioninto the army. Once the bus passed through the gate to the base, one ofthe black men stood up and said, "Well, we're on a federal reservationnow. I'm not gonna sit in the back of the bus anymore," and he movedto the front. The driver stopped and called a white MP; they beat thisyoung fellow unconscious. Or, as my friend put it, "They beat him so badthat he lost his manners."
In Jim Crow days in Mississippi, you just never knew what might comedown on you. You could be brutalized unexpectedly. If you struck back,it was almost guaranteed that you would be arrested, manhandled, andfurther brutalized by the authorities themselves without any real opportunityto prove your case. A good deal of exhaustion comes from anticipationor expectation of unpredictable brutality. You didn't have to imagineracial brutality in Mississippi. Insults, humiliations, beatings, rapes, andlynchings were very real. They are well documented. And as older childrenwe knew about them. Having been personally subjected to a part of thatas a child, I can assure you those things existed.
Jim Crow segregation was a heavy burden for the soul, even if it didnot always bend your body down. The title of a Bettye Parker Smith shortstory included in Fathers' Songs: Testimonies by African-American Sons andDaughters is "God Didn't Live in Mississippi Then," but, in spite of it all,I think he did live here even back then. God was here then, or we wouldn'tbe here now. God showed up in loving families and in concerned neighborsand community leaders. He gave us true churches, strong heroes,and a faith so powerful that our dreams never died. You couldn't explainwhy I and others became civil rights activists without understanding theimportance of these gifts in shaping us.
I am happy and thank God for having grown up in a Christian family.My mother, Alean Jackson Mason, was a gentle and wise person. As a girlshe had attended a little one-room public school in Hinds County calledOrange Hill School. As far back as I can remember, she worked at homeas housewife and full-time mother. My mother sang spirituals and religioussongs from her heart, and she could sing them one right after theother. Her gentleness and sensitivity were in the songs she sang. The firstI ever heard of the Titanic and all those sad deaths was when she sang thesong "The Day the Titanic Went Down." Then she sang about the greatflood of 1927 and the great storm in 1928 in Tupelo, and all the peoplewho had nowhere to go. From Mother, I heard about a lynching that shehad seen or was told of as a child. She said that to keep the poor victimfrom crying out, the lynchers had stuffed his mouth with mud. What athing for a mother to have to share with a son.
Excerpted from Beaches, Blood, and Ballots by Gilbert R. Mason, M.D., with James Patterson Smith. Copyright © 2000 by Gilbert Mason and James Patterson Smith. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.