The more things change…

Pasadena’s mayor apologizes for city’s racial slight nearly six decades ago, and Joan Williams finally gets to ride in the Rose Parade, but both she and her story were mostly ignored during live broadcasts

By Justin Chapman, Pasadena Weekly, 1/8/2015

It was a moment 56 years in the making, not to mention a rare opportunity for everyone to learn from the mistakes of the past. But instead of doing the right thing, KTLA Channel 5 and other TV stations chose to do something else: they made no mention of Williams or why she was sitting on the lead float in last week’s Rose Parade.


In a statement to the Pasadena Weekly, Andrea Fox, manager of public relations for the Tournament of Roses Association, said Williams’ presence in the parade was not in the $10 parade guide, which is published months in advance of the event. But it was known to most reporters covering the parade, including those with TV.


“Joan Williams was mentioned in the [Tournament of Roses] media guide,” Fox wrote in an email. “As you know, we do not control the on-air broadcasts.”


“We’re pleased to have Mrs. Williams riding in the Rose Parade,” Tournament of Roses Executive Director Bill Flinn told the Weekly. 


Just a few hours prior to the parade, Forbes Magazine reported in its online edition that another long-awaited event occurred, albeit quietly: Pasadena Mayor Bill Bogaard apologized on behalf of the city for the way Williams, Miss Crown City of 1958, was treated by public officials after it was learned by a local mainstream newspaper of the time that she was African American.


On New Year’s Eve, Bogaard finally delivered a formal letter of apology to Williams written on the mayor’s official city letterhead.


“Dear Mrs. Williams,” the letter begins, “It was a pleasure to talk with you today and to wish you a Happy New Year. Thank you for your good wishes to me. I just heard your interview on KPCC about riding in the Rose Parade. I consider it a privilege to have made your acquaintance and extend my friendship to you. I am truly pleased that you will be in the parade this year, and I am extremely sorry that this opportunity was not made available to you in 1958. You have kindly said that the Tournament’s invitation to you represents a new commitment in Pasadena to our efforts to embrace differences and welcome all members of the community. I share that view with you,” the mayor wrote.


“As Mayor, I hereby apologize to you for the experience you had as Miss Crown City in 1958 and I thank you for accepting this year’s invitation and for the friendship you have expressed for Pasadena,” wrote Bogaard. 


As Miss Crown City, Williams was supposed to ride on the city’s float in the 1959 Rose Parade and attend various city functions, such as ribbon cuttings and dinners. But she was also denied these honors after her heritage became an issue. 


This year, the Tournament of Roses, after first learning about the story in the Thanksgiving Day 2013 edition of the Pasadena Weekly in a story titled “Beauty and the Beasts” and subsequent reports, offered Williams a spot on the leading theme banner float.


Williams’ story gained international attention in the days leading up to the parade, with coverage by Forbes, the Washington Post, some Chinese- and Spanish-language newspapers and a host of other publications and news outlets — including KTLA. As a result, many have been left wondering why Williams was excluded from the parade broadcast. Most of the cameras showed Williams for about two seconds, but her face was hidden in the shadows of the theme float. The theme of this year’s Rose Parade, which featured family members standing in for Grand Marshal, Olympic athlete, World War II prisoner of war and inspirational speaker Louis Zamperini, who died at age 97 in July, was “Inspiring Stories.”


It appears the only television station to pick up the story during the parade broadcast was Spanish-language Univision.


Following a barrage of comments on its Twitter feed, KTLA aired a post-parade interview with the 83-year-old Williams. KTLA, which also interviewed Williams prior to the parade, did not respond to requests for comment.


“People all over the country woke up early to view the parade, specifically because, having seen the many news articles and interviews on TV, they wanted to witness ‘history’ and the reconciliation that was due my mother,” wrote Williams’ son, Chip, in an email to this reporter. “But it didn’t happen. Her ‘Inspiring Story’ was not told. So what happened? We are all wondering.”


Mrs. Williams, the widow of celebrated former Tuskegee Airman Bob Williams, who co-wrote and co-executive produced the award-winning movie of the same name starring Laurence Fishburne, said she had a great time riding in the parade. She said the most important thing to her was the community showing her kindness and appreciation along the route. She heard from people all across the country who were excited to tune in and watch Miss Crown City finally riding in the parade.


“I was disappointed for the people in TV land, who had been so moved by [the Weekly’s original] story that they weren’t able to get that final satisfaction of a few words at the actual parade. The feeling was that it was just completely ignored because the cameraman just skimmed over that float. But the parade is about festivities, so I have mixed emotions about it,” Mrs. Williams said. “I’m just sorry that all those people out there who were moved by the story, who were all glued to the TV and then got nothing. So that was unfortunate.”