When Endymion recently caused an uproar by announcing anti-Semite and racist Mel Gibson would be its Co-Grand Marshal, I rolled my eyes and thought “Here we go again.” The public outrage over such a poor choice was predictable and certainly understandable but all the pearl-clutching and shocked gasps, especially among newcomers to the city, made me chuckle and think, “If they only knew . . .”
Most of those offended lashed out at the krewe as a whole, which was not only unfair, but also demonstrated their ignorance of how parading krewes operate, to say nothing of Carnival history—or the role of parades in that history.
Krewes are highly structured and at the top is the captain. The captain is the boss. Think of the captain as a dictator. The captain decides everything: what the theme is, who the royalty are, who the grand marshal is, etc. The captain also selects float lieutenants, who are given a wide berth to manage their individual floats, specifically with regard to riders. Typically every rider on a float knows the lieutenant and many of the other riders. Float lieutenants and riders are not consulted on major decisions.
I know both lieutenants and riders in Endymion, and they informed me they learned about Mel Gibson when everyone else did. They were just as shocked at the choice as most people were. And like the rest of the parade-going public, they voiced their objections to the leadership, who reversed course and yanked Gibson.
The decision to eighty-six Gibson appears to have prevented a repeat of the Nyx debacle a few years ago. The Krewe of Nyx imploded in 2020 when founder and captain Julie Lea posted “All Lives Matter” on the Krewe’s social media in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement which had been reinvigorated at the time by the murder of George Floyd. A significant number of the Krewe’s membership left the Krewe.
As for Endymion, the rank and file appear to be staying put. Endymion had its start in 1967 when it first rolled as a small neighborhood parade. Historian Edward Branley points out, “One of the founders is Ed Muniz, who owned several local radio stations. Being self-employed (and later, a politician in the City of Kenner), he could devote more time than many to managing the parade. As Muniz grew older, he passed on the management of the krewe to his sons-in-law (he only had daughters). The two sons-in-law now run the krewe.”
Imbroglios involving race and Carnival krewes are nothing new, nor are charges of elitism. When Bacchus debuted as the first super-krewe in 1967, old New Orleans—the Uptown blue-bloods who ran the old mainline krewes from the 19th Century—were horrified. Float parades had been their exclusive domain since 1857 when Comus first appeared on the streets of New Orleans.
These old families with their old money (which was very much new money to the Creole aristocracy at the time of the Louisiana Purchase) who made up the memberships of Comus and Momus and Proteus and Rex considered Bacchus (and the super-krewes that followed it, including Endymion) to be usurpers, unwelcomed and uninvited—new money and tacky, a stain on their Carnival traditions. The old guard looked down on the super-krewes and their egalitarian membership policies. What do you mean anyone can join if they can afford the dues?
The old-line krewes, never burdened by political correctness or what is now referred to as “wokeness,” have never tried to hide their racism, misogyny, or anti-Semitism. Consider the legendary Comus Ball in the 1920s which was marked by the “Jewish scandal.” The Queen of Comus, who was revealed before the ball, was discovered to have a small fraction of Jewish blood in her lineage. As she was escorted around the ballroom during the Grand March, each table viciously hissed, “Jew. Jew. Jew.”
The bigotry of the krewes was never on more full display than in 1991. Shortly after ex-Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, Republican David Duke was almost elected Governor, New Orleans City Councilwoman Dorothy Mae Taylor introduced an ordinance to deny parade permits to any krewe that discriminated on the basis of race, religion, or sex. In response, Comus and Momus offered the City Council a huge extended middle-finger and decided to cancel their 1992 parades. Neither krewe has rolled since. Proteus also stopped rolling the following year but in recent years has resumed its parade. At the time, political observer John Maginnis noted, “Even the ancient black Krewe of Zulu, which admits whites, objects to being forced to admit women.”
Race and issues of discrimination have been intertwined with Mardi Gras for a long time, and parades do not seem to help; in fact, one could argue they’ve only made things worse. And why do we have parades anyway? The reason may surprise you.
Prior to 1857, Mardi Gras celebrations did not include float parades; rather, Shrove Tuesday was a day of unstructured socializing. The upper-classes had their masked balls but regular working folks simply partied in the streets all day. The first written reference to Mardi Gras in New Orleans dates to 1729 when a clerk for the Company of the West described in detail dressing in drag for the celebration. A 1781 Cabildo report references the issue of Black people attending masked balls during Carnival and calls for stricter segregation. (The same report addresses the issue of Blacks wearing feathers; Mardi Gras Indian historians take note).
After the Louisiana Purchase, the Americans who poured into the city were puzzled by French Mardi Gras and Creole Carnival traditions. The Anglo-Saxon, Protestant Americans immediately began interfering with these French Catholic traditions, to the point that Carnival balls became marred by violence—so much so that guns were outlawed at the balls. (The Americans also replaced the art of dueling with swords to fighting with guns). Americans have always loved guns almost as much as they love racism. Even today, when people protest against gun violence or racism, they are accused of protesting America.
The plebeian masses, not familiar or comfortable with formal balls, took to the streets in common, and often drunken, revelry. One visitor to New Orleans in 1835 described it this way: “Men and boys, women and girls, bond and free, white and black, yellow and brown, exert themselves . . . march and parade on foot . . . wildly shouting, singing, laughing . . .” and in 1838, one newspaper, the Commercial Bulletin, wrote, “The European custom of celebrating the last day of Carnival by a procession of masqued figures through the public streets . . . a delightful throng followed . . . and raised a perfect hubbub and jubilee.”
By the 1830s, the Americans had successfully transformed New Orleans into a bustling American city. Their rivalry with the Creoles lingered and Canal Street became the dividing line between the two groups. While the Americans had surpassed the Creoles in business, banking, and politics, the Creoles still had the cultural advantage and Mardi Gras was at the heart of that ethos.
In his book, Lords of Misrule, James Gill writes, “The glorious disorder on the streets of Mardi Gras did not meet with everyone’s approval, as an English visitor noted in 1846: ‘The strangeness of the scene was not a little heightened by the blending of the negroes, quadroons and mulattoes in the crowd, and we were amused by observing the ludicrous surprise, mixed with contempt, of several unmasked, stiff, grave Anglo-Americans . . .”
All this disorder—the race mingling and drunkenness and sexual indulgence was too much for the puritanical Americans; consequently, the city almost outlawed Mardi Gras. But then the genteel and gracious white Anglo-American patriarchs of the city stepped forth and lectured the mayor, saying you don’t need to cancel Mardi Gras. You need to impose order on it, and we can help you do that by staging a parade. Hence the advent of Comus and the modern association of parades with Mardi Gras.
The notion of parades was obviously a popular one, but the fact remains that the idea of imposing order on a day characteristically and traditionally marked by disorder violated the essential spirit of Mardi Gras and constituted the apex of cultural appropriation and the epitome of monied privilege.
So are parades bad? No, not necessarily. But it’s important to remember some krewes are more “woke” than others and when a krewe is big enough to be considered a super-krewe, the diversity of riders will reflect that truth. The float lieutenants and riders in Endymion, as well as other krewes, with whom I’m friends are all progressive and find bigotry repugnant. But that’s not necessarily true of the riders on the floats before and behind them.