Lundi Gras 1999 had extra excitement to it, at least for those gathered at Riverwalk near the stage at Spanish Plaza where Rex, King of Carnival, and his entourage would soon be arriving.
What was different that year was the coming of special visitors, the Zulu King and his followers, who were on the way to greet Rex.
This moment oozed with significance, not just racially but symbolically. There were more news media than usual with cameras readied.
A reporter from a Los Angeles TV station even put a microphone if front of me to comment on the significance of the event. (Full disclosure, having been involved with the founding of the Lundi Gras ceremony I have served as MC. My presence has been conspicuous by my purple, green and gold “Cat in the Hat” type chapeau.)
Myron Moorhead, a physician, had been elected Zulu that year and he played the role to the fullest, even creating events including a party for other kings and staging a boat arrival that morning at Rivertown in Kenner. That would be his first of two water rides that day; the second would be downtown when he and his followers docked at Zulu’s Lundi Gras party near the aquarium. His biggest idea, however, would become one of Carnival’s celebrated moments. It was he who suggested that on Lundi Gras Zulu should greet Rex.
Rex officials huddled. The idea was accepted. Rex, having stepped off a Coast Guard Cutter, arrived at Riverwalk’s stage at 6:00. First there were proclamations and gift exchanges, and then came the moment. The crowd was excited. Though everyone knew what was about to happen we teased the crowd saying that a special visitor would be arriving soon. Moments later we provided more news: the mysterious guest was approaching. The crowd played along. There were chills down my spine when I finally announced: “Ladies and gentlemen, the visitor has arrived, please welcome King Zulu.” The crowd, and it is relevant to the story to say that it was mostly white, went wild. Zulu added to the moment by being dressed in African motif. His followers wore the traditional gold blazers. The sight on stage was bejeweled with Rex (Louis Freeman) wearing the costume of a seafaring King and Zulu in feathery glory.
This is the type of moment that mayors crave. Carnival had delivered a love-in that City Hall never can. If it would have been proper, the two kings and mayor Marc Morial would have boogied on stage. Instead, they did a lot of hand shaking and hugging.
From that moment, the tradition would evolve: The reigning Rex, Zulu and mayor standing at the center of the stage and, after the crowd counted for from ten to one, pushing down a plunger which ignited a fireworks show over the river. (Incredibly, the only pyrotechnics display in Carnival.)
If Mardi Gras has a high, holy moment that was it. The Louisiana Weekly, a black-owned newspaper would one day recall the evening in a feature on Zulu history:
Zulu helped create a significant milestone in New Orleans race relations in 1999, when the respective kings of the traditionally Black Zulu krewe and the traditionally white Rex krewe exchanged official greetings for the first time in history.
“This is history making,” then-City Councilman and long-standing Zulu member Roy Glapion Jr. was quoted in reports as saying, “This has never taken place.”
History is made in many different ways. Sometimes it is even accompanied by fireworks over a river.
There are many traditional greetings and meetings by various monarchs during Carnival, but to me the finest moment of all is when Rex and Zulu bow to each other.
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