The Spirit of America Festival is one of the largest free Fourth of July celebrations in the Southern United States. The two-day outdoor festival, set at Point Mallard Park in Decatur, Alabama, hosts a variety of traditional summer activities. The event is organized and staged by an all-volunteer board.
The major highlights of the festival are the presentation of the Audie Murphy Patriotism Award, the presentation of the Barrett C. Shelton Award, the Miss Point Mallard pageant, and also the presentation of one of North Alabama's largest aerial fireworks displays.
The Spirit of America Festival began in 1967 as anti-Vietnam War protests grew throughout the United States. The citizens of Decatur, AL, decided to show their support for the servicemen and women in Vietnam, and to promote patriotism in America through the presentation of an annual Fourth of July event.
Over 10,000 people gathered in a local high school stadium for the first Spirit of America Festival.
In 1970, a Miss America preliminary pageant was added to the festival's line-up, Miss Spirit of America, along with family games and other special events. In 1976, the Spirit of America Festival relocated after an outdoor stage was constructed for at Point Mallard Park, a local municipal park, owned and operated by the City of Decatur. The pageant title was changed to "Miss Point Mallard" from 1976 through 2013. In 2014, the pageant moved to the Princess Theatre Center for the Performing Arts and resumed the "Miss Spirit of America" name.
Air Force Captain Gerald O. Young, in his first speech given since receiving the Medal of Honor for heroism in Vietnam, directed a great tribute to the "American Soldier" to a gathering of over 20,000 people.
In 1984, President Ronald Reagan addressed a crowd of over 60,000 people at that year's festival.
The Audie Murphy Patriotism Award is named in honor of America's most decorated soldier from World War II, and Medal of Honor recipient Audie Murphy. Murphy, who was to have been the guest speaker at the 1971 Spirit of America Festival, died in a plane crash just two months prior to his scheduled appearance at the Festival. The award is now presented annually to an "outstanding American patriot" or "an outstanding group of individuals who most exemplify the true 'Spirit of America.'"
Past recipients of the Audie Murphy Patriotism Award include: Vietnam Prisoner of War Charles J. Plumb, Brigadier General Hallett D. Edson, General Omar Bradley, Alabama Governor George C. Wallace, U.S. Senator James C. Allen, U.S. Senator John Sparkman, U.S. astronaut John Young, Olympic track star Jesse Owens, entertainer Johnny Cash, U.S. Congressman Bob Jones, Secretary of State Alexander Haig; Vietnam veteran U.S. Senator Jeremiah A. Denton, U.S. Senator Strom Thurmond, Iranian hostage Charles C. Scott, actor Gerald McRaney, and U.S. Admiral Donald Whitmire.
The Barrett C. Shelton Freedom Award was established in 1980 in honor of local newspaper publisher, Barrett C. Shelton, one of the founders of the Spirit of America Festival. The award is presented annually to honor an Alabamian for outstanding service to his/her community and state.
In 1994 the H.J. Heimlich Humanitarian Award was added to the honors presented at the Spirit of America Festival. The plaque is presented to an individual or group who have saved or attempted to save another human being, or an individual or group who have significantly added to the betterment of all mankind. Dr. H.J. Heimlich was the first recipient, followed by the United Service Organizations.
The "Miss Spirit of America" pageant (known as "Miss Point Mallard" from 1976 through 2013) is one of the many preliminary pageants in the Miss America scholarship program. The winner of the pageant advances to the Miss Alabama pageant, along with receiving a variety of scholarship opportunities, gift certificates, and prizes.