Jackson — When Malcolm White worked in the French Quarter during the late 1970s, he was fascinated with New Orleans parades, including the pageantry of the Mardi Gras parades.
When White returned to downtown Jackson, he decided the city needed to properly celebrate its Irish heritage centered on St. Patrick’s Day. He originally thought about hosting a “pub crawl,” but figured, “we might as well take a dip through downtown.”
On a whim, White secured a permit from the Jackson Police Department for a Friday afternoon parade on St. Patrick’s Day in 1982. Starting at 4 p.m., White and the O’Tux Society started marching down Capitol Street in the middle of rush hour traffic, followed by Sweet Potato Queen (SPQ) Jill Connor Browne and three pals regally riding on the back of a pickup truck.
Behind them, the Bluz Boys played music on a flatbed truck, an MGB convertible towed a roller skater, and a truck full of rowdy Millsaps fraternity boys cheered them on. Walker’s Drive-In employees tossed green vegetables from a flatbed truck, and two guys from The Clarion-Ledger wore fish heads and tossed newspapers from a “float” as they drove down the street. Arthur Mahoney, an Irishman and former boxer, was the first grand marshal.
The event bottlenecked traffic in downtown Jackson and gave people plenty to talk about.
“People were honking their horns and waving their arms,” recalled White, co-owner of Hal & Mal’s, now considered Jackson’s “leprechaun-at-large.”
“We thought it was admiration, but it turns out they were mad,” he said. His friends joked about the “Mal-function,” and White immediately began planning the next parade.
That first year, the Bluz Boys kept playing after the parade ended at George Street Grocery.
“It wasn’t planned or rehearsed and about 500 people gathered around,” said White. “Everyone loved it. That was the beginning of the street dance.”
Twenty-three years later, White’s creation, which has become a homecoming of sorts for former Jacksonians, represents the site of the nation’s third largest St. Patrick’s Day Parade, following Chicago and New York. The parade route snakes around Capitol Street, West Street and ends in the Hal & Mal’s parking lot on Commerce Street, where the Bluz Boys headline the traditional afterparty.
But it’s the thousands of lusty, busty SPQ wannabes sporting regulation diamanté sunglasses, green-sequined mini-dresses and red-haired beehive ‘dos that now take center stage.
The “Southern belles in overdrive,” representing some of the 1,400 SPQ chapters worldwide, arrive en masse no later than Friday, in time for the SPQ Ball, to pay homage to The Queen. On Saturday, they prance down State Street in sparkly costume-coordinated groups as part of the Million Queen March. The smiling and waving beauty pageant-like contestants are reviewed and prizes given.
When Browne and the original SPQs arrive by limousine, they are treated like Hollywood royalty. Their celebration includes PJs and Pearls, The Afterglow Party and the sold-out Sunday Brunch.
“Seeing the parade grow into such a grand event was a big surprise for us,” said parade spokesperson Charly Abraham. “Jill Connor Browne making herself the Sweet Potato Queen started as a joke, and then she decided to write a book about it. The next thing we know, we have 2,500 wannabes visiting from all over. It’s an absolutely fabulous economic boon for Jackson. They fill every restaurant, hotel, mall and taxicab.”
Approximately 50,000 revelers sporting green gather to watch the spectacle, to see who can amass the largest collection of beads and colorful trinkets tossed by high-riding parade floaters. Homemade cones grab the lion’s share of goodies. The day-long event begins with a 5K walk, 5K run and one-mile fun run, followed by a 10 a.m. “green” pet parade benefiting the Mississippi Animal Rescue League and a children’s parade at the Old Capitol.
“It’s no longer this one-day event,” said Mara Hartmann, spokesperson for the MetroJackson Convention & Visitors Bureau. “Festivities start on Thursday and end on Sunday. It’s a huge boost for all metro merchants and hospitality venues.”
BancorpSouth, Cellular South, The Clarion-Ledger, Southern Beverage, Southwest Airlines and Trustmark sponsored last year’s parade, themed “Survivor: Downtown Jackson” and featuring Grand Marshal Darrah Johnson, the 22-year-old from Ridgeland who made it to the final four on TV’s “Survivor” hit reality series. The Verde Do Krewe garnered the Best in Show prize, winning the Buckethead/Sambo Mockbee Award. All total, $4,500 cash, plus two roundtrip airline tickets, were awarded.
“During our freestyle days, it used to be that if you showed up, you were in,” said White. “No rules, no regulations, nothing. We’ve had to make some changes.”
At press time, the same sponsors, sans Southwest Airlines, had committed to the March 19 parade, with 2,000 participants expected. This year’s theme: “When the Saints Go Marchin’ In.” The Grand Marshal: New Orleans Saints superstar Deuce McAllister, who has invested heavily in downtown Jackson revitalization projects.
To streamline the 2005 parade, the start time was changed to noon, with the SPQ float and entourage followed by the marching SPQ wannabes. White and the O’Tux Society’s 1 p.m. step off with the Olympia Brass Band from New Orleans remained the same, followed by the Krewe of Kazoo waving pink umbrellas, the usual cast of characters and 50 motorized vehicles.
Since the third year, White has donated money derived from the parade — entry fees, pocket change collected in buckets, etc. — to the Blair E. Batson Hospital for Children. So far, parade events have raised more than $300,000.
Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at email@example.com.