Monday, December 19, 2011

Today in 1991: Mardi Gras Krewes Desegregated

Twenty years ago today, the New Orleans City Council passed an ordinance that requires each Mardi Gras Krewe to provide an affidavit that they have:

[N]o written or unwritten provision in its charter, bylaws, rules, regulations or policies which call for the refusal, withholding or denying of membership, or any of the services, accommodations, advantages, facilities or privilege offered by the respondent to members or others, because of race, color, creed, religion, national origin, sexual orientation or ancestry...New Orleans City Code 34-3.

This ordinance was the culmination of efforts by civil councilwoman Dorothy Mae Taylor. Three years earlier, the Supreme Court decided the case of New York Club Ass'n v. City of New York, 487 U.S. 1 (1988). That case held that the New York City’s Human Rights law which forbid discrimination in any “place of public accommodation, resort or amusement” applied to private clubs. Inspired by that case and several constituent complaints, Taylor drafted a resolution for the city council modeled on the New York City law upheld by the Supreme Court.

Though preceded by several years of public hearings and work by the newly-formed city Human Rights Commission, in the weeks leading up to the council’s adoption of the ordinance a fierce debate raged both throughout the city and in the pages of the Times-Picayune.

A typical letter to the editor opposing Taylor’s proposed ordinance read:
Attacking a Carnival Tradition

I urge you to not support Ms. Taylor's proposed ordinance. It is yet another arm of government reaching out to fix something that does not need fixing. ... Ms. Taylor's plan unnecessarily attacks a tradition.

If there is some group she feels has been ignored in the process, perhaps she should consider the possibility of those people forming their own krewe, instead of trying to muscle their way into krewes that have not invited them to join. Everyone, including Ms. Taylor and her constituents, will best be served by learning to earn things for themselves rather than to take from others.

(New Orleans Times-Picayune, December 12, 1991)
And a typical letter in support of the ordinance:
Taylor on Right Track with her Carnival Ordinance

I would like to strongly commend City Council member Dorothy Mae Taylor for her gallant step toward exorcising the demons that have torn apart our city over race and intolerance.

Her proposed Mardi Gras ordinance is needed now more than ever ... [t]he use of public funds to benefit even the appearance of discrimination should not and cannot be permitted.

(New Orleans Times-Picayune, December 11, 1991)
After passing the ordinance, the city council, in further negotiations with community leaders and the major Krewes, adjusted penalties and the schedule for the ordinance to take effect. Eventually, the substance of the original ordinance was preserved and all Krewes marching on public streets in Orleans Parish must now provide the non-discrimination affidavit required by section 34-3. Three of the oldest Mardi Gras Krewes, Momus, Comus, and Proteus, decided to no longer participate in parades rather than change their membership traditions, though Proteus eventually resumed parading in 2000, after, apparently, conforming to the city ordinance.

Also, one of the changes the city council made to Councilwoman Taylor’s ordinance in Spring 1992 provides an exception to the non-discrimination requirement; as it reads now, section 34-3 applies “except as otherwise authorized by chapter 86, section 86-39” which states:
"Nothing in this article shall prohibit any carnival krewe, parading carnival organization, or other organization organized or existing for the primary or dominant purpose of observing or participating in the carnival season from restricting its membership or any class of membership to classes based on sex." New Orleans City Code 86-39.
And, so far, apparently, no male plaintiffs have sued to become a member of Muses.

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