New Orleans is a city of tradition and mystery, but in 1967, a six-mile march through the Uptown oaks, as Rex waved his baton over his regal subjects, forever would alter the city.
Looking back through the lens of 50 years, it’s easy to wonder what all the fuss was about. The St. Augustine Marching 100, the best high school band in Louisiana and probably the best unknown band in the nation, had been invited by Rex captain Darwin Fenner to join the parade on Fat Tuesday, a monumental and even shocking social statement on several fronts.
Rex had been presiding over Carnival since 1872, but never before in those 95 years had a black band ever performed for the king’s pleasure. The Voting Rights Act had been signed into law by President Johnson in 1965 and schools across the country had begun their halting march toward desegregation, but in New Orleans, used to moseying around in its own sleepy time zone, those four hours on Tuesday, Feb. 7, 1967, were a highly charged juxtaposition of cat calls and genuflection.
In a documentary, “Bended Knees: The Story of the Marching 100,” St. Augustine band director Edwin Hampton, who passed away in 2009, recalled the scene as the Marching 100 rolled down St. Charles Avenue and got within ear shot of Canal Street.
“I can remember a very elderly, black lady and – this is the truth – she got on her hands and knees and thanked God in a way that everybody could see what she was saying, that she had lived to see this day when a black band marched on Canal Street,” Hampton said.
The marvelous thing was how the kids – 14 to 18 years old – handled everything thrown their way.
In the haze of fading memories, the Rex parade was a largely positive, exhilarating walk into social history. In other parades that invited St. Augustine to march – after Rex had provided the cover – there were a few, as we might say, unpleasantries.
“In those days, these parades went through the French Quarters, and what you got on your head from the upper balconies was not champagne,” Hampton recalled. “We didn’t stop to analyze it. We had told our kids to turn the other cheek and don’t react to the crowd and keep going, and they did a good job on that.”
All this came together this week in the Rex den, an unmarked, beige warehouse on South Claiborne Avenue that could double as an NSA widget factory. But roll open those metal doors and inside is a huge parking garage, crammed with the oversized, gold-leafed Boeuf Gras and the flora and fauna of our childhood that blossom only one day a year and then roll back on ancient, wooden wheels into darkness.
Amid the glitter, Maurice Gourrier, Lester Matthews, Joe Givens, Dwight Richards and Dwight Fitch – all members of the Marching 100 who marched in that 1967 Rex parade – exchanged laughter and 50-year-old stories, some of which may have even been true.
They were among the 20 members of the 1967 Marching 100 invited by Rex captain Christy Brown to celebrate the 50th anniversary of their historic march by riding the Calliope float on Mardi Gras, as a tribute to their “bravery” 50 years ago in breaking the color barrier.
“The Calliope is one of our iconic floats,” Brown said. “Each year, that float blares out ‘If Ever I Cease to Love,’ over and over. This year, it won’t be playing ‘If Ever I Cease to Love.’ Instead, it will be leading the way right in front of the St. Augustine marching band, and we decided to turn the music off so our 1967 band members can enjoy the music of the band.”
The band members, now in their mid- to late-60s, will be throwing 10,000 commemorative, 50th anniversary cups, but they won’t be playing their instruments.
“No, thank God,” said Dwight Fitch, a former trumpet player, laughing.
Lester Matthews, who played clarinet, is a high-ranking official of Zulu, but when he got the invitation from St. Augustine president Dr. Kenneth St. Charles to retrace his personal journey in Rex, he was forced to make a Solomonic decision.
“I did a lot of soul-searching,” Matthews said. “I decided I needed to do this because this is unprecedented. It shouldn’t be a big deal right now, but in 1967, it was a big deal, so I’m willing to give up my Zulu ride.”
Maurice Gourrier, 66, recently retired after a 40-year career with Chevron. He’s lived in Lafayette since Katrina, which laid claim to his high school clarinet. He says his Rex memories shaped his adolescence and his future.
For one thing, Gourrier said, “Mr.” Hampton knew this was not going to be a cake walk, and he prepared every member to keep their gaze fixed straight ahead. Several Josephite priests, some dressed in their black cassocks, and Josephite brothers escorted the band.
“Our parents, our family, our guardians – all the people – were aware of what we were about to do and the significant history of it,” Gourrier said. “I’m sure there was nervousness, and, if nothing else, simple stress. The word ‘bravery’ is very much appropriate. Mr. Hampton prepared us; my parents prepared me. As Purple Knights, we did the rest.
“I don’t want this to come out the wrong way, but a great deal of people who were the backbone of this community through the ’70s and ’80s – the lawyers and the judges – were Purple Knights. I say that because I’m proud of it. They molded us. They made us do things the right way for the right reasons and to hold our heads up high.”
And to keep the knees high and bent.
“We were a marching band, but we were extraordinary athletes,” Gourrier said. “We marched from start to finish. We didn’t walk, we didn’t skip – we marched.”
“Let’s do it again!” someone shouted.
“No,” Gourrier said with a smile.
Gourrier’s most searing memory was on St. Charles Avenue downtown, two blocks away from Canal Street.
“We did the ‘roll-off,’ which is when the drum major takes his baton and rolls it off and the cadence starts to let us know we were about to play,” Gourrier said. “Roll-off happened, and, oh my goodness, the sound resonated so powerfully off of those buildings. Everybody, even the people that perhaps didn’t want to see us, they were screaming, too. It was amazing.”
Dwight Richards played the drums. He got so excited near Canal Street he had to keep himself from hyperventilating.
“I felt my chest swelling, almost the whole parade,” Richards said. “You could feel the adrenaline pumping, and the main thing was we had to calm down.”
The back story of the original invitation goes like this. Josephite Father Robert Grant, the St. Augustine principal, wrote a letter to Mayor Vic Schiro asking why the Marching 100 had never been invited to play in Rex. A Schiro assistant wrote a letter to Fenner, then serving as the Rex captain, to inquire if Rex might consider the request. Fenner made the ultimate call.
“In those days,” said Brown, the current Rex captain, “the captain’s decisions were pretty much followed. I think there was understandably angst about the decision being made, but people trusted Mr. Fenner to make good decisions, and in hindsight, it was a great decision.”
Only in New Orleans would a couple of dozen 65-year-olds riding a Mardi Gras float and throwing 20-cent plastic cups be an enduring story. Only in New Orleans would a universe of technicolor joy be hidden inside a beige warehouse.
Peter Finney Jr. can be reached at email@example.com.