On August 17, 1968 Judy Ann Ford, an eighteen-year-old gymnast from Illinois, was the first blonde in eleven years to be crowned Miss America. "I'm so glad," she gushed to the press that evening. "I feel like it's a breakthrough."
Meanwhile, just four blocks from Convention Hall, at the Ritz Carlton Hotel, another ideal was about to be chosen.
Calling itself a "positive protest," the Miss Black America Pageant had been scheduled to begin at midnight, in the hopes that newsmen would drop by when they left Convention Hall. It was nearly three in the morning before nineteen-year-old Philadelphian Saundra Williams was crowned.
"Miss America does not represent us," Williams told the audience. "With my title, I can show black women they, too, are beautiful."- Saundra Williams, Miss Black America 1968
J. Morris Anderson was inspired to create the MBA in 1967 after speaking with his two young daughters who desired to become Miss America, although the contest at the time didn’t allow Black women to join the competition.
With help from Phillip H. Savage, then director of the Tri-State NAACP, Anderson was able to get nationwide press coverage for his event. Anderson held it in Atlantic City on the same night as the Miss America event; he would meet angry protests and invasive inquiries from Black newspapers.
Saundra Williams of Philadelphia won the inaugural pageant. A tall, slender and Afro-wearing beauty, Ms. Williams stood as a proud example for young African-American women. Anderson would eventually negotiate with television network NBC to run the MBA live on air.
Support from both those in Hollywood and the music world has been strong. Stevie Wonder, the aforementioned Ms. Winfrey, Spike Lee, Congresswoman Maxine Waters and countless others have appeared on the MBA stage as part of the lavish affair.