Forty years ago this Mardi Gras season, New Orleans and its Carnival faced a crisis together. Both would be enriched by the experience, though there would be plenty of pain and stress along the way.
At issue were the New Orleans police who had threatened to go on strike just in time for that season’s parades. Without the police there could be no security; without the security there could be no parades. To say that “Mardi Gras would be cancelled” was inaccurate because the day on the calendar would still exist, but without its most visible manifestation, the parades, the season, some feared, would be wrecked.
Dutch Morial was the mayor at the time, having been sworn in the previous May. It is relevant to the story that Morial was the city’s first black mayor. Though there had been some concessions made to the police on pay increases, they wanted more, particularly binding arbitration, by which labor disputes with the city would be settled by a third party. Morial was adamant in opposing that, arguing that the city would lose control of the department and its finances. At first there was concern over the white population of New Orleans supporting a black mayor against the police department, but as the parade season drew closer, the police side made blunders. One was the arrival of a Teamster Union official from Detroit to be a speaker for the police. With his open collar and gold chain, the official conjured about as much esteem as the mafia. Then there were local strike leaders who talked about wrecking the city. At a rally a toy rabbit was shown lynched to a pole suggesting that after killing Mardi Gras, the strikers would do the same for Easter.
Then came the cavalry. In one of the great moments in the city’s civic history, ten krewe leaders stood together before TV cameras announcing that they were not going to parade. The Rex captain spoke for all, proclaiming that they would not be held “hostage by the Teamster’s Union,”
A few krewes, mostly newer ones, did parade in Jefferson parish that year, but other krewes, especially the older ones, the groups most guided by tradition, stayed off the street. To them, they could not parade anywhere else but in New Orleans.
Mardi Gras was Feb. 27 that year. With the tension of the parades removed, there would still be celebrating. The French Quarter was a happy place resembling an urban street festival. The mood was peaceful, but, just in case, National Guard soldiers stood ready at various intersections. Those young men protected the city while girls danced in front of them, some placing flowers in their helmets. From the balconies they saw sights that basic training had just not prepared them for.
By the next day, the police strike was in ashes. With Carnival over, the police had lost their leverage and the strike fell apart. The Teamster went home. It was a victory for Morial and the city, which still controlled its own police department
Years later a history professor, who was also a friend of Morial’s, told me how hard the situation had been on the mayor. As a lawyer he been sympathetic to unions and represented their causes, but as mayor he had to stand against them for the civic good.
Because he was black there was initially speculation that Mayor Morial would not look kindly on Carnival and its mostly white krewes. But the strike solidified the relationships. As though in gratitude for the backing, he was a very supportive mayor.
Contrary to rumors about continuing ill will between the mayor and the police, by the next year, 1980, the parades were back in full groove. On the last night of the season there was a ceremony that was quite meaningful, though few people saw it. The Comus parade still closed out the season. Traditionally mayors toast the parades at Gallier Hall. That night the Comus procession included a battery of New Orleans police dressed in full dress uniforms. At Gallier Hall the police paused to receive glasses of Champagne. And then the officers and the mayor, enemies a year earlier, toasted each other.