By Ida Brown
On a day marked by numerous historical events, observances, even new laws, Meridian made history as it embarked on a new beginning – the inauguration of its first African-American mayor, Percy L. Bland III.
Monday's inauguration was witnessed by people from all walks of life, from babies to those in their golden years. And it was accompanied by smiles, laughter and tears – of remembrance and joy.
As people began to fill the three levels of downtown's historical Temple Theatre, Bland sat quietly backstage at a side exit – calm, but deep in thought.
"It's a new day, and I'm happy to begin serving as mayor of Meridian, Mississippi," Bland said, clearly moved by the distinction.
Minutes before the ceremony was to begin, the mayor-elect and officers of the Meridian City Council, along with family members and supporting staff, gathered in a circle of prayer lead by the Rev. Alphonzo D. Lewis, pastor of Mount Olive Missionary Baptist Church.
When Bland and his wife, Deidre, entered the theater, the audience jumped to their feet – waving, yelling and shouting "We love you, Percy!" "We're proud of you!" Once the mayor-elect, council and other platform guest made it to the stage, the inaugural ceremony became reminiscent of a Sunday morning worship service with a high-energy gospel performance by YPOP, the moving and spirit-filled song "I'm Gonna Be Ready" by Cassandra Hall, ad inspirational invocation by the Rev. Antonio Stinner, pastor of El Bethel Baptist Church and a exuberant closing song, "Jesus, You are the Center of My Joy," by Audrey L. Dixon.
The Meridian Fire Department performed the duties of Color Guard, while Bland's daughter and son, Demia and Peryn, lead the Pledge of Allegiance, followed by "The National Anthem" performed by Bonnie Parrish.
The Meridian City Council – newcomers Kim Houston, Ward 4, Dustin Markham, Ward 2, and Randy Hammon, Ward 5, and veterans George Thomas, Ward 1 and Barbara Henson, Ward 3 – took their oaths of office, which was administered simultaneously by The Honorable Lester F. Williamson Jr. Each council member gave responses after the ceremony.
Gloria Christian led the audience in singing "Lift Every Voice," also known as the Black National Anthem.
The Honorable Veldore Young administered the oath of office for the mayor, which provoked a thunderous round of applause and cheers from the audience. The newly installed mayor gave a touching speech that prompted tears – from him and the audience. He began by noting "a different feel in the city of Meridian" and expressing gratitude to the citizens for making the day possible.
"You all are the best. You all did things that people said that we could not do." he said.
Bland spoke on Meridian's proud beginnings, its tumultuous past and its rise back to the top.
"Between 1890 and 1930, Meridian was the largest city in Mississippi, and a leading center of manufacturing in the United States," he said. "We are a city built on entrepreneurialism, music, art, athletics and civil rights history. Our city has been burned to the ground, but has been rebuilt, as it did in the Battle of Meridian in 1864. Our city has been at the center of America's civil rights movement, as it was 100 years later in 1964, as three young men who were working as unpaid volunteers lost their lives as they worked to prepare people in the Meridian area to become registered voters.
"The spirit. The potential. The energy. The heart. The deception. The strength. The skill. The evil. And the genius of all those people who both shaped the history of this city into the potential economic mecca that it could be, and the potentially stagnant city that some may view it are still here today."
More than 190 years later, where will we go, Bland asked.
"Will we continue to talk about our potential? Or, will we work together by our actions to promote good policies and initiatives to uplift each citizen of this city," he said. "Will we listen to the critics and the naysayers, who are once again saying certain things can't be done? Or, will we listen to that voice from within that says, 'Yes, we can?'"
Bland said he believes Meridianites will listen to their inner voice of hope.
"That voice that gives us the hope and faith that we can move mountains," he said. "Everything we need is inside this building today. All the educational, business, musical, artistic, athletic and entrepreneurial talent is already here. We don't have to move to Atlanta, or to Birmingham, or to Hattiesburg or to Jackson. We can transform Mississippi right here in Meridian, Mississippi. It starts with you and it starts today."
As he shared his father's story of hope and inspiration – from working in the cotton fields at age 4 earning $1.50 a day to moving his family to bigger houses in better neighborhoods. And that no matter how poor he was or felt, he never lost hope – Bland broke down in tears. And so did the audience.
"Take your time, Percy .... We love you! ... It takes a big man to cry ... We got you, Percy!" were some of the comments made amid thunderous rounds of applause.
"He understood hope ... He instilled that once a child or a parent feels hopeless or loses hope, they can no longer dream. My father understood dreams ... As he dreamed, we also dreamed," Bland said. "If he had not dreamed, he would not have ever been able to leave his (unfortunate) circumstances ... I am my father's child."
Bland said he ran for mayor to offer hope to children, as well as opportunities and a better quality of life to the citizens of Meridian.
"If I can in some small way through leadership help them, I will do it," he said.
" ... I ran for mayor to bring back the entrepreneurial spirit that has never been lost in this city, and can once again rise. Through trust, respect and a renewed energy, we can once again be the lead city in Mississippi."
And, Bland concluded, "A brighter Meridian begins today."