Since it’s kickoff in 1921, the Miss America Pageant had been a popular national thrill showing off the beauty of American women. The issue was, the Miss America Pageant did not include the whole population of American women, but solely the lily white women. Despite getting rid of the law that barred African American women from competing in the Miss America pageant in 1950, the pageant had refused to accept any African American women. In 1967, an entrepreneur named J. Morris Anderson asked his young daughters what they wanted to be when they grew up, and both excitedly responded “Miss America!”. This conversation helped bring the racial hypocrisy that the Miss America Pageant operated under to J. Morris Anderson’s attention. Thus the idea of the Miss Black America Pageant as a counter pageant was born. With the help of Phillip H. Savage, the director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware, they succeeded in holding first national pageant for African American women .
The first Miss Black America pageant was held on August 17th, 1968, the same day as the Miss America pageant, in the same city (Atlantic City, New Jersey), only four blocks away from where the Miss America Pageant was being held. This planning was not an accident, and was timed in order to directly counter protest the Miss America Pageant. The Miss Black America Pageant started at midnight, in an attempt to gain audience and media attention from the individuals leaving the Miss America Pageant.
At its core, the Miss Black America Pageant was constructed in response to the mainstream media idea that “black was ugly”. Throughout history, mainstream media and entertainment had often described African American features as unattractive. Light skin, “good” (not curly) hair, and a narrow nose were what was advertised as attractive. African American parents often attempted to alter their children’s features by pinching their noses as infants or having young children wear close pins on their nose, or straighten their hair. The Miss Black America Pageant was and is a key part to the Black is Beautiful movement. It advertised and exemplified the true beauty of the African American community. The Miss Black America Pageant also worked to counter many of the issues that had caused so many feminist complaints of on the Miss America Pageant. For starters, through the Miss Black America pageant, they contestants were dressed in long dresses and gowns, as compared to the mildly sexualizing and flashy outfits of the Miss America Pageant. The Miss Black America Pageant from the start also encouraged appreciation of African heritage, as well as gave their contestants a pedestal to discuss the civil rights issues of their time. This in part was brought about by the drive and civil awareness of the individual who won the first Miss Black America pageant in 1968, Saundra Williams .
Saundra Williams, the first Miss Black America, helped to give the pageant as well as the ideals of the Black is Beautiful a solid foothold and representative. For her presentation in the pageant, Saundra Williams sported the all-natural African styled Afro, and a long white beaded gown that she made herself. Below are images of Saundra Williams and her hairstyle/homemade dress.
For her demonstration, she performed the “Fiji”, a traditional African dance, and discussed her feminist ideals about how she believes that men and women should equally share household work, work which at that time was expected to be done by women. She was the perfect public figure to win Miss Black America, exemplifying not only an attractive woman who was proud of her African American features and heritage, but was intelligent, bold, and progressive in her views. After she was crowned Miss Black America, she was asked her opinion on the Miss America Pageant. She responded by stating:
“Miss America does not represent us because there has never been a black girl in the pageant. With my title, I can show black women that they too are beautiful.” – Saundra Williams
Saundra Williams continued her involvement with the Miss Black America pageant, negotiating with NBC to get the pageant featured live on television during prime time in 1977 .
Miss Black America Now
Miss Black America is a pageant that is still put on today, maintaining it’s same core ideals, emphasizing the beauty of and appreciation for African American heritage, as well as creating a platform for the discussion of the racial tensions and civil rights issues of today. Throughout it’s history, it has had a number of big names advocate for it, and featured African American public figures such as Stevie Wonder, Spike Lee, and namely Oprah Winfrey. Oprah even competed in the Miss Black America Pageant, representing her state as Miss Tennessee. The Miss Black America Pageant has and continues to open doors for ambitious African American women, and disposes of the negative ideas surrounding African American features and heritage. But the first pageant in 1968 still holds it’s place in American memory in fighting the mainstream media and helping to expand the Black is Beautiful cultural movement.
MBA in Memory
The Miss Black America pageant often does not get as much attention even though it was a large movement for the African American community at that time. It is often forgotten due to the feminist protests surrounding the Miss America pageant and all the attention they received. It is also a common misconception that the Miss Black America pageant had ties to the feminist protests. This is false, in fact many African American women did not feel the protests represented them at all and most did not take any interest in it. The feminist protests of the Miss America pageant was primarily made up of young to middle aged white women. I found it interesting that in the physically recorded history and memory, a movement made up of white women absorbs all the historical attention away from a protest movement by the African American community. But, despite the misconceptions and memory warping, the Miss Black America pageant continues to forward its original message, helping to spread the Black is Beautiful cultural movement throughout the African American community.
Below is a short 2 minute documentary on the Miss Black America Pageant
- 1st ‘miss black america’ pageant to be staged in atlantic city. (1968, Aug 31). Chicago Daily Defender (Big Weekend Edition) (1966-1973) Retrieved from http://libproxy.lib.unc.edu/login?url=https://search.proquest.com/docview/493461202?accountid=14244
- Contest slated to select miss black america. (1968, Aug 29). Los Angeles Times (1923-Current File) Retrieved from http://libproxy.lib.unc.edu/login?url=https://search.proquest.com/docview/156047020?accountid=14244
- Dow, Bonnie J. “Feminism, Miss America, and Media Mythology.” Rhetoric & Public Affairs, Michigan State University Press, 30 Apr. 2003, muse.jhu.edu/article/41766
- Admin. “HomePage.” Welcome to the Miss Black America Pageant,14 Apr. 2018, missblackamerica2017.com/.
- Welch, Georgia Paige. “‘Up Against the Wall Miss America’: Women’s Liberation and Miss Black America in Atlantic City, 1968.” Feminist Formations, Johns Hopkins University Press, 24 Sept. 2015, muse.jhu.edu/article/593533.
- Vorwerck, Molly. “Groundbreaking 1968 Pageant Proved Black Is Beautiful.” USA Today, Gannett Satellite Information Network, 16 Feb. 2018, http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation-now/2018/02/15/1968-miss-black-america-pageant/1000949001/