Joan Williams was supposed to ride on a city float in the 1958 Tournament of Roses Parade, after being named “Miss Crown City” of Pasadena. At the time, racism was everywhere, but she was so light-skinned that nobody realized she had African-American heritage, until they saw her darker-skinned husband and children. Then, suddenly, the city neglected to put a float in the parade, and she didn’t get to ride on it.
Fast forward to New Year’s Day, 2015. It’s the 126th annual Tournament of Roses Parade, and an 82-year old Williams finally gets her chance to ride. She was on the banner float, leading the parade down Colorado Boulevard, ahead of every other participant there was. That includes the marching bands from Florida State University and the University of Oregon, the two schools whose football teams are playing in the Rose Bowl this afternoon.
The theme for this year’s Tournament of Roses Parade was “Inspiring Stories,” and Washington Post writer Diana Reese says that Williams’ inclusion was especially appropriate because of that. Of racism, Williams said that back in her day, it was a fact of life. After the Civil Rights Act passed, and in the years following, she believed that we’d turned a corner on racism and race relations in this country. But Reese wrote that, following the events in Ferguson and New York City in 2014, Williams said:
“There’s just too much hate in this country. We can’t keep going…. It’s going to explode, it’s really going to explode.”
Some think it already has, but there’s the possibility that we haven’t seen the full explosion yet. Like a seething volcano that’s already suffered a series of small eruptions, it’s hard to tell whether they were enough to defuse it, or if they’re merely a harbinger of a major eruption just around the corner.
Williams, for her part, felt that Pasadena snubbing her for the Tournament of Roses Parade was a slap in the face. The San Gabriel Valley Tribune reports that she didn’t buy the city’s excuse that there were too many other entries in the parade, so they didn’t have room for a float of their own. Pasadena had major issues with race relations back then. Couple that with the fact that Williams’ co-workers stopped talking to her once they found out about her heritage, and it’s not hard to see what probably really happened.
The Tribune says that Pasadena has not offered an official apology, and the city is still struggling with race relations after the police shooting of unarmed black teen Kendrec McDade. Mayor Bill Bogaard, however, took Williams out to lunch, and they spoke of their families, but didn’t talk about what happened with the ’58 Tournament of Roses Parade.
Tournament of Roses Executive Director Bill Flinn said that Mayor Bogaard asked if there was a spot for Williams in the 2015 parade. Flinn found that they did, indeed, have an open spot on the banner float, so that’s where she rode. She said that it took a lot of convincing from her children to accept the spot, and it doesn’t mean today what it would have meant in 1958. She also said:
“I want to honor the community and especially the African-American community who were so vocal about feeling the city needed to make an apology. It wasn’t a big deal in my life for me to harbor that for the rest of my life.”
She has mixed feelings about participating in this year’s Tournament of Roses Parade, but felt it was “especially poignant” amid all the protests about racial injustice around the country. She’s pleased she can give a different ending to this story to her great-grandchildren now.