PASS CHRISTIAN, Miss. — The Pass parade is big but homemade, not fancy or sequined like the more famous New Orleans extravaganzas only 55 miles away. Costumes are limited to funny hats, T-shirts of green, gold and purple and drugstore boas. Floats are flatbed trailers or old school buses bedecked with beads.
Not slick, but special. It is the Pass people who make the celebration, with a blend of enthusiasm and determination and unfettered fun. Carnival here is historic but, like everywhere else on the coast, constantly evolving. Some scolds criticize the dominating rock music, but nobody with a sense of fun seems to mind it much once the parade rolls.
This year’s Pass parade seemed no different from three others I’ve seen over the years. The Sunday before Mardi Gras was sunny and cool — parade perfect — and police say the crowd reached 50,000, or 10 times the town’s population. Children were everywhere, and those riding on the floats made an effort to get the best throws into smaller hands.
Until it ended, the Pass parade might have illustrated how people can get along in the South, how a true amalgamation exists here like nowhere else. If a martian had landed, he would have discovered a racially diverse, fun-loving, carefree, creative community.
He might have said, “The heck with Mars,” and stayed.
Then, the gunfire.
Two men were killed. Both were fathers and bystanders, not involved in whatever anger or craziness prompted a dozen or more shots to be fired, reportedly by two different guns. Four other people were injured and hospitalized. Police are still looking for the shooters.
Residents were devastated. Rumors flew. Racial angle? Terrorism? Gang activity? Nobody knew.
Some said the parade should be moved from the Pass. That it is too raucous on a good day.
Others defended it — just working-class people enjoying Carnival in a way they could afford. “Chaos in the Pass,” headlines screamed.
A video went viral. It was the only silver lining to the horrific event. In it, Pass Christian Police Sgt. Edward Walley is seen hugging and comforting a woman whose longtime partner had just been killed. The policeman happens to be white. The hysterical woman happens to be black.
It was a hug that warmed us all. You can look at that video again and again and feel a gut-level hope, not just for future parades, but for all of humanity. Unlike so many of the images we’ve seen in recent years involving police and the African-American community, this one offers all of us comfort, not just the devastated victim.
Walley was quoted as saying he was just doing his job. When the distraught woman rushed onto the crime scene, it could have gone another way. Police had no idea who she was or why she wasn’t staying back as ordered. But Walley’s hug saved the day.
“You just try to comfort people,” he said later. And by doing so, he avoided adding insult to injury or, worst case, compounding a tragedy.
And so the lessons from the parade that won’t soon be forgotten are still being drawn. One moral to the sad story we can see clearly now: Good people still exist in a troubled, threatening world.
Rheta Grimsley Johnson can be reached at rhetagrimsleyaol.com.