Bitter Mardi Gras debate of race, class evolves 20 years later into a diverse celebration

Twenty years after much of New Orleans convulsed in bitter public debate over whether its beloved Mardi Gras was racist, elitist and exclusionary, new realities illuminate this year’s parading season: Today, hungry krewes unconcerned about race solicit membership on the Internet, offering downloadable applications and helpful credit-card authorizations.

Grass-roots walking organizations ranging from the 610 Stompers to ‘tit Rex and the Redbeans krewe have sprung up since Hurricane Katrina, allowing residents of all income levels to be full participants in Carnival without the costs associated with belonging to a major krewe.

And on Saturday, George Lafargue Jr., the son of an African-American produce vendor, will reign over Endymion, one of the most spectacular parades on the Carnival calendar.

At one level, it might seem the memorable 1992 debate over racial discrimination in Carnival sparked a revolution in New Orleans’ signature cultural treasure.

But krewe captains and historians say the moves toward openness that have overtaken Carnival in the last two decades have been largely organic.

A more progressive generation

They say they are driven by krewes’ economic needs and the arrival of a more progressive generation of Carnival participants, assisted by an awareness born out of the historic debates of 1991 and 1992.

“I believe now all krewes are much more open to being diverse,” said Sonny Borey, the captain of the superkrewe Orpheus and chairman of the Mayor’s Mardi Gras Advisory Committee. “Whether that was brought on by that ordinance, or whether that’s people being just more accepting, I can’t say.”

Certainly krewes are under economic pressure to recruit and retain members willing to spend up to $3,000 or $4,000 to ride, buy throws and attend a major ball, Borey and others said.

Today, 14 of New Orleans’ 30 parading krewes invite membership online. Applications are color-blind.

“Many of these krewes are just dying for members. I’d say more than half,” said Arthur Hardy, the longtime publisher of an annual Carnival guide and an observer with contacts across the Carnival landscape.

“I think any krewe would gladly have black members, if someone were interested and willing to pay,” said Carnival historian Errol Laborde. Today “the law of economics guides (membership) more than anything else.”

Hardy believes the changes in krewes’ racial makeup have been incremental and evolutionary.

Even in 1992, Hardy said, many predominantly white krewes — those below the four elite krewes at the top of the social pyramid — had a few black members, or were in principle open to black members with money and interest.

“Just not that big a deal was made of it,” Hardy said.

In fact, Hardy said, had the luck of the draw been different — Endymion annually chooses its king by lot — Lafargue’s royal ride this weekend, or that of another black Endymion rider “could have happened in the 80s.”

'Racial tensions have been reduced'

Still, Lambert Boissiere Jr., who was a city councilman at the time, said he believes the 1992 debate and ordinance has borne fruit.

“We didn’t destroy Mardi Gras, like so many said would happen,” Boissiere said. “It’s been successful since then. Racial tensions have been reduced a tremendous amount.”

Boissiere concedes that “much of that is generational,” but some is the result of that long-ago debate.

“I think we’re in a much better place for it,” he said.

“It was like Katrina,” Laborde said. “To me, New Orleans is a lot better off after Katrina — but I wouldn’t want to go through Katrina again.”

Twenty years ago, Laborde, a historian and public interpreter of Carnival, served on a critical peace-seeking committee appointed by Mayor Sidney Barthelemy.

Its mission: to find some compromise in the public furor ignited by a proposed ordinance from City Councilwoman Dorothy Mae Taylor.

A debate of race and class

In late 1991, Taylor moved to pass a law demanding that the private krewes that populated Carnival open their doors to all, without regard to race, gender or several other traits, as a condition of receiving a city parade permit.

In its earliest form, offending krewe captains were at risk of jail.

Taylor’s ordinance kicked off a savage debate in public letters, on the airwaves and in packed City Council chambers.

The terrain was race and class.

In a series of public meetings in late 1991 and early 1992, old-line krewes, especially the Mystick Krewe of Comus, the Knights of Momus, Proteus and Rex — all 19th-century clubs heavy with white social, business and civic elites — were pilloried as racist enclaves hoarding economic power for themselves.

While black New Orleanians boasted their own rich Carnival traditions, including the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club, the Mardi Gras Indians and numerous second-line organizations, equal access was at the heart of the debate.

“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 the longtime captain of NOMTOC, a predominantly black krewe that Henderson said has always had an open membership policy.

“I think the (elite) Mardi Gras organizations were viewed as a network to a better job, better opportunities, a link to the ‘better’ people in the city,” Henderson said. “And if you couldn’t crack that, then you could never be upwardly mobile.”

Binding themselves to traditions of secrecy, Comus, Momus and Proteus chose not to respond to the storm of condemnation that broke over them.

Traditionalists who did respond made the counter-argument that government had overreached into the zone of personal freedom to affiliate — an argument that, whatever its merit, had the effect of seeming to accept Taylor’s economic analysis.

Meanwhile, the vast majority of krewes, in ranks below the elite four, felt Mardi Gras itself was under attack.

Two public polls at the time found that majorities of black and white New Orleanians opposed the ordinance.

Krewes cancel parades

In the midst of the debate, Comus and Momus canceled their parades. Comus would never return, while members of Momus eventually spun off into the Knights of Chaos, grabbing its old Thursday night parading slot and purchasing its 19th-century floats.

Proteus bowed out after 1992.

Six months after the debate began, it ended in exhausted compromise. Taylor’s ordinance was stripped of penalties, and all-male or all-female krewes were permitted.

Rex, determined to remain on the streets, publicly pledged to a spirit of inclusiveness.

And krewe captains agreed that in return for parade permits, they would sign sworn affidavits each year pledging that they do not discriminate on the basis of race.

Although it has never made any announcement to that effect, Rex has quietly integrated its ranks, according to several  sources — although no one is willing to offer authoritative specifics. And four years ago, without fanfare, the krewe introduced African-American debutantes at its ball.

'The world's changing'

Proteus, meanwhile, eventually returned in 2000 after signing the non-discrimination pledge.

The krewe recently declined comment, but on its return lifted the veil briefly when Proteus official Gary Brewster said: “The world’s changing, and we’re changing with the world. It’s an evolution. What I’m trying to stress here is that it’s going to happen.”

One effect of the loss of the three old-line parades was a shake-up in the New Orleans Carnival calendar. But it was followed by the arrival of 10 new parading organizations, including two notable successes in Muses and Orpheus.

Both are racially mixed and heavily over-subscribed, and both see themselves in the light thrown by the 1992 debate.

The women of Muses, black, white and otherwise, have brought their workplace and professional relationships to a Carnival krewe. And Borey, Orpheus’ captain, said he, Harry Connick Jr. and others launched the superkrewe with conspicuous interracial DNA precisely to celebrate a post-1992 public inclusiveness.

There also has been a flood of new walking organizations created which further democratize the season from both a race and class perspective. Many, like the Intergalactic Krewe of Chewbacchus or the Pussyfooters, require far less financial investment than riding on a float.

“Mardi Gras has never been more diversified in terms of there being something for everyone,” Hardy said. “I know at least three gay captains of major parades. Society has shifted and moved — in a positive direction, in my opinion.”


Bruce Nolan can be reached at or 504.826.3344.