The Black Memorial Day Tradition in Vicksburg, Mississippi
The Black Memorial Day Tradition in Vicksburg, Mississippi
How the Black People of a Civil War Town Got Stuck with the Responsibility of Celebrating Important National Holidays
How the Current Generation is Shunning that Responsibility
By Earnest McBride
Copyright 2000. Earnest McBride.
Vicksburg, Mississippi (August 15, 2000) ---- In its May 22, 1998, front-page story about one of the nation's most important Civil War battle sites, The Wall Street Journal reported with a great deal of incredulity that "In Vicksburg, Miss., Memorial Day has a separate meaning: Blacks celebrate it, Whites in the main opt out."
The Journal attributed this seeming anomaly to "the Johnny Reb Factor." But there is much more to the story than the Wall Street Journal was likely to discover without a great deal of investigative reporting.
It was in May and June of 1863 that the Black troops fighting and dying at Milliken's Bend, across the River northwest of Vicksburg, made General Grant's Siege of Vicksburg a success on July 4 of that same year. Lincoln was overjoyed, declaring that Vicksburg was the key victory in the winning of the Civil War. So said Commanding General Ulysses S. Grant also. Confederate Commander Robert E. Lee surrendered to Grant on April 10, 1865. Lincoln was assassinated on April 15. And the war officially ended on May 10 of 1865.
Commemoration of the enormous efforts and sacrifices of the nation's soldiers was performed in a big way at Vicksburg for over half a century after the war. At first, five black regimental posts in Vicksburg worked hand in hand with their white Union compatriots from across the nation to pay just tribute to those who had fallen in the Civil War. But after the Federal Government relinquished control of Mississippi to the resentful local whites between 1875 and 1885 (the decade of the infamous "Mississippi Plan"), the Memorial Day and July 4 celebrations became the sole responsibility of Vicksburg's five black posts of the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR), the Civil War era predecessor of the American Legion.
The local whites, however, had a completely different agenda. Briefly put: Ever since Vicksburg fell to the Union forces on July 4, 1863, conservative and reactionary whites here have promoted the mythical "lost cause" of the Confederacy over the factual history and collective interests of the United States. While local blacks carried the banner for the United States on holidays in the post-Civil War decades, in recent times they, too, have begun to show a preference for the white, "Confederate" tradition over the black, "American" one, even if only by default. Consider the following:
Vicksburg has a black majority government (two of three members of the governing City Commission) that rarely shows any interest in supporting the black traditions of the city.
Important national holidays such as Memorial Day and July Fourth are willfully ignored by most civic leaders, black and white, an "anti-American" posture that, for local whites, dates back to the Siege and fall of Vicksburg on July 4, 1863.
Two monuments commemorating Black regiments that fought in the battle for Vicksburg were removed from the National Park during World War II and were never replaced. Today there is nothing to explain or acknowledge the deeds of the thousands of United States Colored Troops that lie dead in the National Cemetery here.
Martin Luther King has to share his birthday celebration with Confederate General Robert E. Lee.
Civil Rights martyr Medgar Evers married local girl Myrlie Evers in Vicksburg in 1951, but no local efforts are made to commemorate his June 12, 1963, death or the pair's marriage.
The hundreds of black ministers in Vicksburg remained inexplicably quiet and often overtly hostile during the Civil Rights movement of the 1960's and during the yearlong economic boycott of 1972 that enfranchised local blacks.
The Black majority of public school children in the Vicksburg-Warren County School District are forced to read the pledge of Allegiance to the Confederacy contained in their student handbooks.
There is a pathetic lack of any local or organized black opposition to an obvious white racist agenda at the core of the civic life of Vicksburg.
There used to be a great deal of historical stirring in Vicksburg around July Fourth and Memorial Day each year. But today, most of this activity is nothing more than a propaganda campaign for the Confederacy, with an overly virile Jefferson Davis as its poster boy. Vicksburg was Jefferson Davis' hometown at the time of his selection as President of the Confederacy. Lost in Vicksburg today is the real significance of the two holidays---July 4 and Memorial Day--- that define the body and soul of the United States, and this in the very city that contains the nation's second most important National Military Cemetery.
The situation got so bad at one point that in 1947 World War II hero Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower was dispatched to Vicksburg, to persuade local whites to begin celebrating the Fourth of July. Some lackluster attention was given to Ike's request for a few years, but eventually the city returned to its old pattern of ignoring the July Fourth celebration. There has not been a city or county-sponsored Fourth of July fireworks display since 1988. Each citizen is left to his or her own devices.
Memorial Day Parade Program Chairman Willie Glasper has complained for at least twenty of the past twenty-five years that local and federal officials seem hell-bent on stifling the celebration of the important national holidays in Vicksburg. It was Glasper who took on the task of reviving the Memorial Day celebrations in Vicksburg in 1975, under the sponsorship of the Black Tyner-Ford American Legion Post of the historic city. "Neither the city of Vicksburg nor the United States military supports us today the way it was done in the past," says Glasper. "Apart from the Tyner-Ford American Legion Post, we can't get any of the military posts here to support us. I have to give credit to Tyner-Ford because they have always been there for us. But we can't get the local high school bands to march or the white veteran groups to help us. The school district said they would leave the choice up to each school and the band directors. But those people won't cooperate for some reason."
One especially galling slight occurred here in 1996, says Glasper, at the time when a massive community turnout occurred for the passing of the Olympic Torch for the Atlanta games later that summer. All the local school bands and the bands from nearby military installations participated. This passing of the Torch occurred just two days before the Memorial Day celebration in Vicksburg. Yet those same marching bands were curiously unavailable for the May 30 parade in 1996.
"For two years we couldn't even have our traditional twenty-one gun salute," Glasper recalled. "The local Army Engineering Unit claimed that they did not have funds enough to pay for the ammunition. They claimed their budgets would not allow them to shoot the ammunition. I suggested that they should make sure that they include this item in all their budget requests. Hopefully, we'll have it in future years."
Until about a decade ago, bands from nearby cities marched in the Memorial Day Parade for a minimum fee. That money is no longer available, says Glasper. The bands from Alcorn and Jackson State Universities, only forty miles away, were regularly featured. So were the military bands from Louisiana, Texas and Georgia. But the cost is prohibitive today, he says.
"Someone here has decided to make Veteran's Day (November 11) the major event of this kind in Vicksburg," Glasper complains. "I can't get them to come to the Memorial Day services or participate in the parade. "What will change this would be the presence here of one of our top national leaders, either the President or the Vice President of the United States. I've been trying to get the Vice President to come here. Some high dignitary would bring the crowds out."
With its continuing slow fade into insignificance, Memorial Day's ultimate disappearance from Vicksburg will have a far-reaching impact, Glasper says. School children, whose understanding of patriotism develops out of a respect for the sacrifices of earlier patriots, will lose out on this basic educational opportunity, Glasper feels. More generally, he says, the notion of civic responsibility" will suffer in the loss of Memorial Day activities.
Memorial Day was given its official birth on May 30, 1868, as a cooperative effort between the active Army and the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR), the Civil War veteran's organization that both preceded and served as the model for the American Legion. The first GAR Commander, Gen. John Alexander Logan, was informed on that date by Army Adjutant General Norton P. Clipman that "the nation was eager to honor those who died fighting."
Most popular histories acclaim two war widows from Columbus, Mississippi, as the first to "decorate" the graves of fallen Union AND Confederate soldiers in April of 1866. In 1967, however, President Lyndon Johnson urged Congress to recognize Waterloo, New York, as the birthplace of Memorial Day, based on a May 5, 1866, commemoration of Union Civil War Dead. Gettysburg also laid claims to being the site of the origin of the observance, dating back to an 1864 meeting between two other Civil War widows.
Two commemorative exercises at Vicksburg, however, take precedence over all the other claims to "memorializing" or "decorating" the Civil War dead. July 4, 1864, at Vicksburg was given coverage nationwide, since it was the first such holiday here after the surrender of Vicksburg in 1863. Inside the city proper, nothing much took place on July 4, 1864. But at Davis Bend, a few miles south of Vicksburg, thousands of black and white pro-Union Americans rocked the river from noon until late in the evening. There was another official "dedication" to the Union Soldiers here in 1865, which can also lay claim to being the nation's first Memorial Day.
Laying all the competing claims aside, nevertheless, Memorial Day officially began under the sponsorship of the GAR when Gen. Logan appointed May 30, 1868 as the special day "for the purpose of strewing with flowers or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion and with the hope that it will be kept up from year to year."
As one of the largest burial grounds of the Civil War dead (18,000 plus), Vicksburg remained a military garrison after the Civil War ended and was noted for drawing massive crowds from the Midwest and core-South each Memorial Day. Five black GAR posts kept this annual massive celebration alive until the last of these Civil War veterans died around 1921 or 1922. Curiously, this was also the time of year some of the nation's great civilian leaders had been murdered while carrying out their official duties. After 57 years of planning, Lincoln's Memorial was finally completed and dedicated on Memorial Day, 1922. Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King were both assassinated in early April. Bobby Kennedy in early June. John F. Kennedy's 1963 burial in Arllington National Cemetery is the honor given to American soldiers who died on the battlefield. The burial at Arlington of Medgar Evers---a soldier of World War II who was assassinated on June 12 ---is likewise a tribute to a soldier fallen in the midst of battle.
Although most history books speak of the first half-century of observation as "Decoration Day," the designation of the holiday as "Memorial Day" was apparently in popular usage before 1870. The June 1, 1870 edition of the Vicksburg Daily Herald gave a front-page account of Gen. George A. Sheridan's "oration at the National Cemetery near this city on Memorial Day."
The Memorial Day Program of 1872 in Vicksburg was as follows: Music by the Consitution Band. Prayer by Reverend (and recent U. S. Senator) Hiram R. Revels. Music by the band. Oration by his Excellency Gov. Powers. Music by the Band. A poem titled "A Memorial Day Tribute" recited in Vicksburg on May 30, 1872, also reinforces the primacy of the name "Memorial Day" over that of "Decoration Day."
Whatever the appellation, however, Memorial Day has lost its real meaning for the black people of the City of Vicksburg. We no longer have the awesome presence in Vicksburg of men and women like Senator Hiram R. Revels, Warren County Sheriff Peter Crosby, State Superintendent of Education Thomas W. Cardozo, Mississippi Speaker of the House John R. Lynch or I. D. Shadd, his sister, educator Mary Shadd, Secretary of State Jim Hill, U. S. Senator Blanche K. Bruce or Lt. Governor Alexander K. Davis. These were great black men, serving in the highest public offices in Mississippi. They were either residents of Vicksburg or they all beat a path to this city each May 30 with the knowledge that their good fortune was directly linked to the sacrifices of the nearly 18,000 men who lay dead in the Vicksburg National Military Cemetery.
Is it surprising, then to see the diminution of black social and political power as either a cause or consequence of the neglect of the dead soldiers, black and white, in the Vicksburg cemetery
The first attempt at the overthrow of the Reconstruction took place in Vicksburg in December, 1874, with the failed attempt of the white Taxpayers Association to chase black Sheriff Peter Crosby and all the other intelligent black office holders out of Warren County. After a massive show of force by the county's black population, with the support of the union Army dispatched from New Orleans, the reactionary racists moved on from Vicksburg and had a great deal more success in less patriotic towns. This period is known in history as the era of "The Mississippi Plan." This plan sanctioned the use of extreme violence and terror to drive black officials and their white carpetbagger associates out of the state.
The most glaring example of the distortion of history and the injection of overt bias into the interpretation of events is the fate of Medgar and Myrlie Evers in Vicksburg. Medgar married Myrlie in June of 1953. He died in Jackson 37 years ago on the night of June 12-13, 1963, the target of the bullet emitted by the cruel assassin, now convicted murderer, Byron De La Beckwith. Strange though it may seem, the legacy of Medgar Evers has undergone an Orwellian transformation in Vicksburg. What was good 35 years ago; i.e., Medgar's fight against the evil of segregation, is now being questioned by those for whom the work was done and the sacrifices made. The evil, on the other hand, as embodied in the life's work of Jefferson Davis, another local product, is celebrated as something heroic.
So appalling is the lack of respect for the life and work of Medgar Evers, said his widow, Myrlie, during her 1995 visit to Vicksburg as NAACP National Chairwoman, that she felt it necessary to pledge that in all her future speeches she would always remind her audiences of her late husband's great work.
Medgar's close friend and staff member, the Reverend Ed King, a native of Vicksburg who now teaches at the University of Mississippi, also sees cause for redirecting our holiday devotions. King, who is white, thinks there is a natural tie-in between the life's work and fate of Medgar Evers and the Memorial Day tradition in Vicksburg.
"I think that people ought to hear speeches about his life and about the relative progress in Vicksburg since his death," King says. "Since the NAACP in Mississippi began in Vicksburg in 1918, where Myrlie and her family are from, I would think that there would be a definite commemoration of some kind in Vicksburg. Medgar was a native of Mississippi who devoted his life to the state's progress. And he was a veteran.
"As a child growing up in Vicksburg," says King, "I always felt that black people there were commemorating the Emancipation and the Civil War losses. I thought of it as a sort of Juneteenth event. Yes, the whole Memorial Day tradition in Vicksburg was considered by most whites to be a black tradition. Pointing out the necessity of honoring all the early Civil Rights workers of Mississippi, people such as the late Fannie Lou Hamer and Aaron Henry, King says that he believes all the others would agree to focus most of the attention on Medgar.
"They should all be remembered every year," King says. "But Medgar is the one who gave his life. And I'm sure that the others would agree that the commemoration should be built around his time of assassination." The youngest of Myrlie and Medgar's three children, James Van Dyke (Van) Evers, now 40, lamented the fact that the people of Vicksburg have chosen to commemorate the leaders of the Confederacy rather than pay tribute to the leaders of the Civil Rights struggle and other battles.
A photographer by profession, Van Evers says that he has tried to maintain an equanimity of mind toward events in Mississippi, past and present. He harbors neither a great fondness for, nor a profound hatred of the state that robbed him of his cherished parent.
Although he regrets the current trend toward embracing the Confederacy by the people of Vicksburg, he does not feel any kind of compulsion to dash into his mother's hometown and engage the defenders of the "Lost Cause" in battle. Instead, Van Evers said from his studio in Los Angeles, he feels that by devoting themselves to worthwhile careers, he and his two siblings are following the path laid out for them by their father, Medgar, during those precious few early years that they shared with him.
Young Evers feels that it is unfair for people to presume that he and his family are at their beck and call because of the family's link to Medgar, the full-time activist. "That's not who we are," he said. "We are following the dream of our father by pursuing our individual careers. But we are not our father. Each of us has a different set of interests. And we are trying to do what it is our unique nature to do.
"But everyone is expecting us to be readily available when they call, because of the association with Medgar Evers. That's really wrong, however. It's not that we don't sympathize with various causes. If it comes naturally, well, that's different. But people do need to understand that it's about who we are and what we have chosen to do.
"I will make my contribution to the greater social cause," Evers continued. "But I want to be me, Van, and find my own way. And in order for it to happen for me, I would have to create some promotional thing and do it through advertising and media. No, I haven't achieved exactly what I'm looking for yet. It's a continuing process. You should never get set in your ways and say, "I've made it." I enjoyed doing the voter-turnout poster in 1996 and then pitching it to MTV and Rock the Vote."
The 1872 Memorial Day celebration in Vicksburg was particularly noteworthy. The presence of former U. S. Senator Hiram Revels contributed considerably to the massive turnout of black and white participants. The year 1872 was also the time when Revels became the president of Alcorn State University. Because Vicksburg had become a major U. S. Army garrison after the victory of 1863, the crowd in 1872 was as much white as it was black. Confederate sympathizers remained aloof then just as they do today. But there were considerably more white U. S. patriots present than pro-Confederates in the Vicksburg of 1872.
By 1900, nevertheless, Memorial Day in Vicksburg had gained its indisputable black identity. It was "a big day with the Colored element of the population and the usual holiday was observed by them," The Vicksburg Evening Post reported on May 31, 1900. The local whites, the news report said, "were content to sniff the morning throngs from afar." Likewise in1919. The Vicksburg Herald of May 31, 1919, reported that "scores of basket parties were enjoyed by the Negroes and everything passed off in keeping with the true spirit of the day."
The closer the old Black Civil War veterans approached the end of their lives, the more constant was their identity with the Memorial Day celebration. In 1920, The Vicksburg Herald denoted this in a headline: "Union Memorial Day: Colored G. A. R. On Duty." The following year, the Vicksburg Evening Post ran a similar headline: "Colored Posts of G.A.R Observe Decoration Day." The observance by black people had become "an established custom" in the city, the paper reported. "And, as usual, the ceremonies are being conducted by the Colored G. A. R. (Grand Army of the Republic) Posts of Vicksburg and Vicinity."
It had long since become obvious that the ranks of the black veterans were thinning out with increasing speed. "The rapidly thinning ranks of the old colored vets" was very noticeable" The Evening Post said. And in its May 30, 1922 edition, the same newspaper reported that "the colored members of the GAR had their usual parade to the National Cemetery." It is worth noting also the report that "the banks were not closed. None of the business places were closed." Local whites, in effect, refused to observe the national holiday.
At this point in 1922, the Black Memorial Day tradition in Vicksburg had about come to an end. Still, in the coming years, various black sponsors would elicit noteworthy degrees of responses from the black community of Vicksburg to their efforts at reviving the glory and serene spectacle of past Memorial Days, Today, Memorial Day in Vicksburg is about at the point of near depletion where it stood in 1922.
At one point, this noble black tradition of commemorating Memorial Day in Vicksburg had become "the" local Black history celebration of the city. Memories of slavery, Civil War battles, emancipation, and black power in the Reconstruction era were all still fresh in people's minds. But then it all mostly faded away after the death of the principals who had kept the tradition alive. Quel dommage, that Vicksburg's black civic and political leaders of today fall so far short of the responsibilities and achievements of their 19th Century forebears. Today's crop of "leaders" isn't even aware of its duty of spearheading and sponsoring such events as Memorial Day and the Fourth of July celebrations.
The problem, now as in the past, is not with local whites. Their shallow worship of the "Lost Cause" is no more noxious an intrusion today than it was in the years after the Civil War, the period in which black leadership assumed its responsibilities without hesitation. But absent such a strong black initiative, the romantic idiocy of the Confederacy has come into the ascendancy.
The blame must be shared equally by local Black leaders and the Federal Government for trashing some of the country's most important symbolic acts in Vicksburg. This neglect of Memorial Day and July Fourth is nothing less than the repudiation of the great Civil War victory that so many dead and dying U. S. troops---black, white and otherwise---so gallantly achieved in reassuring the nation of its tortured survival.
The Vicksburg National Military Park and Cemetery, with its nearly 18,000 silent witnesses to the dear cost of freedom, has a profound national importance, second only to Arlington as a military shrine to the dead patriot. One third of those dead troops in the Vicksburg National Military Cemetery are black patriots.
In addition, July 4, 1863, was Black Emancipation Day in Vicksburg. Today's black leadership in Vicksburg, however, prefers not to be reminded of its responsibility to keep the memory of the real black hometown heroes alive. Quelle horreur!
(Earnest McBride is a freelance writer formerly of Los Angeles, now in Vicksburg, Mississippi.)