50 Years After He Was Chained And Set Afire, WWI Veteran Is Honored
Marion, Arkansas (CNN) — A traditional three-shot volley salute and the solemn sound of taps echoed across the black cemetery in the Delta flatlands of Arkansas, just across the Mississippi River from Memphis, Tennessee.
The military honors were followed by the jubilant singing of “Amazing Grace.” The service had been five decades in the making.
Everyone was here to honor Isadore Banks, an African-American veteran of World War I who was chained to a tree in June 1954, doused in gasoline and burned beyond recognition.
The slaying — a year before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to whites on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama — remains one of the nation’s oldest unsolved civil rights cases.
“This has been a long time coming,” said Marcelina Williams, a granddaughter who worked with the Army to arrange Monday’s ceremony after she found her grandfather’s military records. “Bless our country with freedom and righteousness.”
A pillar in the African-American community, Banks helped bring electricity to the town of Marion in the 1920s and became one of the wealthiest black landowners in a region with a long history of racial violence.
His killing had a profound effect. Many blacks left and never came back. For those who remained, the message was clear: If you were black and acquired wealth, you knew your place.
Blacks from all around would come to the killing site — to look at the oak sapling, to pray and to never forget. It seems most everyone in
Crittenden County’s black community had a hunch who was responsible.
To this day, some elders still name names. Yet they say no investigators ever interviewed them.
The questions linger: Why was no one ever charged? What happened to his hundreds of acres of land? Why did the FBI destroy his case file?
But on this day, in a rare moment in time, a semblance of dignity was restored to Banks, more than 90 years after he served his country in war.
Loved ones and about 50 others from the African-American community gathered in Marion Memorial Park, the black cemetery where
Banks was buried so many years ago.
They burned him like a hog.
–Herman Hayes, 97
An honor guard folded an American flag 13 times, as is tradition, and handed it to one of Banks’ daughters, Dorothy Williams. “I present this flag on behalf of a grateful nation,” said Army Spc. Mathew Garland.
Williams set free five white doves, one representing each decade that has passed since her father was killed. The birds flew from a heart-shaped basket and circled the cemetery three times.
A sixth dove, representing Banks, was released by a granddaughter. “Let’s set Grandfather free,” said Marcelina Williams.
The dove soared in the air and joined the flock. All six flew off into the clouds, in the direction of where Banks died on that hot summer day.
Said his granddaughter: “It was like I was watching my grandfather take his rest, his true final rest.”
A giant of a man
Isadore Banks was a giant — 6-foot-1 and nearly 300 pounds. He was a quiet man who rarely laced up his shoes because his feet were so big. A generous spirit, he would pay for supplies at the local black school.
A ladies’ man, he also was known to carry on several affairs. His heirs include children and grandchildren from those relationships.
At 22, Banks left his hometown of Marion to join the Army. As a young black man in the segregated South, he had been denied the rights and privileges of his white peers. Yet when his nation called, Banks responded.
His first day in the service was June 15, 1918, in the final months of World War I. Records show his first payment was $71.30. It appears
Banks was sent to Camp Pike, a massive complex near Little Rock where tens of thousands of soldiers with the 87th Division trained for battle. Blacks were kept separate from the white troops.
It’s not clear from Banks’ military records whether he deployed overseas. He received an honorable discharge on August 2, 1919.
After the war, Banks returned home and put his experience to work. In 1925, he was one of five men who brought electricity to this tiny Delta town. Working for a utility company out of Memphis, they dug holes with shovels and lifted the large wooden poles by hand. They strung up the wires and, within four months, Marion had power. Banks and his co-workers then brought power to nearby communities.
Along the way, Banks began buying land. He farmed cotton and helped form a black-owned cotton gin business in the 1940s to prevent white farmers from undermining the profits of black farmers. He also started a trucking company.