Jul. 2, 2019

RACIAL BACKLASH

MISS AMERICA PAGEANT 1958. Seconds before my Float and I were attacked....

One week before competing in The Miss America Pageant, my chaperone and I flew to New York City where, in addition to photography sessions, press conferences, and lunch with New York City Mayor, Robert F. Wagner Jr, I was scheduled to appear on two of television’s most popular shows----the Today Show and the Ed Sullivan Show. The morning of my Today Show appearance, my chaperone felt ill and unable to accompany me so-- she asked the hotel manager to place me in a reputable Taxi and tell the driver my destination.

Seemingly friendly, the driver commented on my southern accent and asked where I was from. I proudly told him I was Miss Arkansas and.....before I could say more.....the driver swerved his taxi to the curb and began shouting, “Get your ass out of my taxi, you fuckin-nigger-hater!” Scared beyond words, I jumped out of the taxi’s back seat and had barely closed the car's door... before the taxi screeched away. It was my first time in New York City; I had no idea where I was or how to get where I needed to be. But, just like in the movies, an Irish police officer walked up and said “Lady, you look lost, can I help you?” Minutes later, I was sitting in the back of a NYC Police Car being driven to the studios of NBC, home of The Today Show.

No one prepared me for the political questions I was asked on national television… questions like “Why does your Governor hate Negros?” or “Why does your state treat Negros like slaves?” I was a beauty queen, not a politician, and---knowing from personal experience that the show (live television show) must go on--- I simply answered each question to the best of my ability.

Before arriving in Atlantic City for the Pageant, the Miss Arkansas Pageant Director bragged about the Miss Arkansas Float being the most expensive and elaborate float in the Boardwalk Parade. The Miss Arkansas Committee had increased the float budget so it could be designed and decorated by New York City’s most professional parade-float designers. The evening of the parade, I saw the float for the first time and was horrified. The float was gaudy-ugly. It depicted a Cleopatra-Egyptian theme in brassy gold and shiny black, complete with an elaborate throne flanked on either side by black panthers wearing rhinestone collars. Not only was it completely over-the-top, I found the black panthers and throne offensive, hinting of centuries-old slavery. As the parade crew helped me climb on my throne, one man remarked, “Who would put Black Panthers on a Beauty Queen float, anyway? They distract from the Contestant!!!!!”

My driver found our place in the parade line-up and almost immediately, the parade music began. We’d traveled approximately three hundred feet and I was waving, smiling, greeting the crowd when, out of nowhere, objects began flying through the air-- hitting me and the area around me. Within seconds the float was covered with bleeding tomatoes, smashed apples, tennis balls, and all-kinds of trash, including paper cups, ice and soda drinks. The air was alive with movement as things smashed on and around me.... striking my head, my body, and discoloring my expensive white gown. I felt the float wobbling and shaking as angry people screamed ugly names at me like “Nigger Hater” and “Racist Bitch”---and tried to climb onboard. The crowd’s noise was soon overpowered by the sound of police sirens. Within minutes, the area around my float was alive with parade police, city police and every type of security. The Police Chief stopped the parade, cleared everyone from around my float and---concerned for my physical well-being---found a doctor to give me a quick once-over. The parade's official crew were attempting to clean both me and my float when the announcement came that, due to security concerns, the Arkansas Float was being pulled from the parade.

The Chief of Police escorted me to his car and safely back to my hotel room. Both local and national media were warned to ignore the parade incident in their reports. Ever mindful of the pageant’s image, the Miss Arkansas Pageant Director instructed me to remain silent--- about the “unfortunate” New York City taxi experience and the Parade's “un-pleasantries.”

Over dinner, several reporters (staying in the same hotel) told me that—prior to my arrival in Atlantic City---the Associated Press had been running a series of articles focusing on race problems in Arkansas. Several editorials also appeared in local papers, exposing the racial bias of Arkansas’s governor. Most believed the articles appeared specifically in Northeast newspapers including New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and New York. One of the reporters shared a recent front page from the Philadelphia Enquirer Newspaper featuring a large photo of me accompanied by an article titled: “Miss Arkansas 1958, proudly represents a Southern State that hates Negros”.

So, did these racially-charged articles influence the Parade Float Professionals when they designed the Miss Arkansas float?!?! I’ll never know for certain. One thing I do know: I experienced the frightening boardwalk parade incident, first-hand, just as I personally experienced being thrown out of a New York City taxicab. So---don’t talk to me about racial backlash.

Sally Miller