Of purple, green and gold — and black and white
THEN: Masking is a time-honored New Orleans Carnival tradition, but in late 1991 New Orleans City Councilwoman Dorothy Mae Taylor made a case that those masks were hiding more than the identities of riders in local parades. They were also, she said, hiding a tradition of exclusion and racial segregation among the city’s Carnival elites. And so Taylor, the first black woman to serve on the New Orleans City Council, decided to do something about it, sponsoring a proposed ordinance to withhold city-issued parade permits from any Carnival krewes discriminating on the basis of race, color, sex, sexual orientation, national origin, ancestry, age, physical condition or disability. After extended and heated public debate — on the airwaves, in City Council Chambers, in the pages of The Times-Picayune — the ordinance unanimously passed on Dec. 19, 1991.
Mardi Gras has seen an explosion of diversity in the two and a half decades since Taylor’s ordinance passed. Orpheus, the superkrewe founded by Harry Connick Sr., Harry Connick Jr., Sonny Borey and others, was formed in 1993 as an explicitly inclusive organization. In the past decade, new krewes such as ‘tit Rex, Chewbacchus, Freret, Nyx, and the Mystic Krewe of Femme Fatale have joined the parade schedule with a come-one, come-all attitude.
- A lightning rod of controversy upon its introduction, the Taylor ordinance was amended in early 1992 to require krewes simply to state they do not follow any “written or unwritten” discriminatory practices. It also removed the possibility of jail time for offenders. Taylor voted against the amended ordinance, although it passed anyway.
- The city’s four old-line Carnival krewes responded differently to the new rules. Rex took the changes in stride and has paraded every year. Comus and Momus, complaining it infringed upon members’ First Amendment rights, never paraded again, although some members joined the Knights of Chaos. Proteus went forward with its parade in 1992, then did not roll again until 2000.
- Comus, the city’s oldest organized Carnival krewe, still exists as a non-parading organization and still notably participates in the celebrated meeting of the courts of Rex and Comus on Mardi Gras evening, marking the traditional close to Carnival festivities.
- Taylor’s ordinance was about more than parades. It was also about the networking opportunities afforded to the members of the social clubs that stage the parades, which represented a class of businessmen and society elites. “Her ordinance had more to do with economic opportunity than actual participation in a Mardi Gras parade,” said James Henderson, a member of the Mayor’s Mardi Gras Advisory Committee and captain of NOMTOC, in a 2012 story in The Times-Picayune.
- Taylor’s ordinance came at a time of palpable racial tension in the city. In the same year the ordinance was introduced, white supremacist and former KKK grand wizard David Duke earned 38.8 percent of the vote statewide in his ultimately failed gubernatorial run.
- Although the integration of Mardi Gras krewes remains the cornerstone of Taylor’s legacy, her long career in civil rights was noted in her 2000 Times-Picayune obituary: “A grass-roots activist in Central City since the 1950s, Mrs. Taylor repeatedly broke through racial and gender barriers, winning a state legislative seat in 1971, joining Gov. Edwin Edwards’ Cabinet in 1983 as secretary of urban affairs and winning a City Council seat in 1986. She championed issues ranging from improving housing code enforcement to upgrading living conditions in jails.”
- In 1971, when Taylor ran for state Legislature, her campaign manager was civil rights hero Oretha Castle Haley.
- As part of the Prospect.3 New Orleans art festival, artist Andrea Fraser performed “Not Just a Few of Us,” a one-person interpretation of the December 1991 City Council meeting where the ordinance to integrate was debated and passed.
When Taylor’s Mardi Gras ordinance was first introduced, she was pilloried in some quarters, painted as a Carnival Grinch bent on ruining Mardi Gras. Twenty-six years later, any such ruination has yet to become evident. In fact, the opposite is true. While still rooted in tradition — which is something New Orleanians value deeply — the Carnival of today is by no means rooted in exclusivity. With numerous new krewes and marching groups filling the parading calendar, the city’s annual celebration is as populist, and as inclusive, as it has ever been in the 160 years since Comus first took to the streets, making it a true people’s party.