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Proms take unfortunate steps backward

By Eugene Kane
Last Updated: May 14, 2003

We'd better hope folks in Iraq and Afghanistan never hear about this one. If our aim is to spread American ideals to the rest of the globe, it might be embarrassing if foreign countries were to discover that, in 2003 America, we still have segregated senior proms.

Segregated, as in "Whites Only."

For young people in some parts of rural Georgia, racially segregated proms have been a way of life for decades, ever since many school districts were integrated in the 1960s. Many Southern schools stopped sponsoring proms altogether when schools were desegregated. Some speculated it was because officials were alarmed at the prospect of white and black students mingling romantically. In response to protests by black leaders and enlightened parents, there have been attempts in some Southern communities to hold integrated proms, with varying degrees of success. But the "all-white" prom has been a hard concept to kill.

Just over the weekend, two high schools in rural Georgia held segregated proms. At Johnson County High School in Wrightsville, whites attended one prom while blacks attended another. At Taylor County High School in Butler, students attended an "all-white" prom paid for by parents; an integrated prom for blacks and whites was also held. The all-white prom at Taylor County High was considered an unfortunate relapse to previous bad behavior. Just last year, Taylor County High made news by announcing it was doing away with its whites-only prom in favor of an integrated prom for everyone. When white students decided to return to Jim Crow days, many inquiring minds wanted to know: What happened to all that good feeling? Apparently, it was just a bunch of hot air. And at Johnson County High School, one student who helped organize the whites-only prom said most students didn't see the need to change a long-standing tradition, according to The Associated Press.

"It's always been like that," said Carla Rachels, 17. "We don't see it as a big deal."

Predictably, many residents - black and white - in these small communities are upset at all the negative attention. For all but the most backward minds, having a "Whites Only" prom seems downright archaic, a throwback to the days of "Colored" water fountains and "Whites Only" bathrooms. "We're getting beat up unfairly, our students are," said Wayne Smith, superintendent of Taylor County schools, in an interview with Cox News Service. "We are being shown to the world as a bunch of racists, which absolutely is not true." The jury might still be out on that.

If you think the idea of an "all-white" prom has to do with different styles of music, dress, slang or anything other than white parents deathly afraid their fair-skinned daughter might dance too close to a black male, it's time to take your head out of the sand. Interracial sex is one of the great hidden secrets behind America's struggle with race. Although there are more relationships across the color line than ever before, for some narrow-minded folks, it is still the greatest taboo. In an age where so many pay lip service to America's way of life being vastly superior to everyone else's, it's awfully hard to hear about an all-white prom held on purpose somewhere in this great nation and not wonder what the hell is going on here.

Maybe it's a sign we need to get our own house in order before dictating to others how they should live.


From the May 15, 2003 editions of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel


Segregated proms, racism aren't new in South


Oregon Daily Emerald


Guest commentary

May 28, 2003

I just wanted to say how much I enjoyed Salena De La Cruz's column ("Turning back the clock on civil rights," ODE, May 12) about the first integrated prom.

I wanted to inform your readers that it is not only going on just in Georgia. I grew up in Louisiana, and most schools in South Louisiana have never had an integrated anything! (And I do not see it happening any time soon!)  To be honest, I never knew that it was any other way. I just thought all schools had a "white dance" and a "black dance." The reason I say "dance" is because it is not only prom, it is for homecoming, Sadie Hawkins, spring dance... and so on.

I am very sad to have missed out on my 10-year high school reunion, but I am told I did not get invited because I married someone "not white." I am married to a man who is Arab.  In my school, I remember being friends with kids whose fathers were in the Ku Klux Klan. I remember some boys who could not attend the football games because they had a KKK meeting that night. This was in 1999.  For homecoming, we could dress up in costumes. Some people just wore their father's KKK outfits to school... and there would be this one small kid who they would dress up in black (paint his face and all) and call him "nigger," and for the lunch break they would chase him around school. I am not proud of this at all! I am just surprised that the rest of the United States does not realize that the South is like this.

I had lots of friends in the public school system. From what I know, the public school system in my parish, and any parish I know of in Louisiana, has two proms. They claim they do this because of music choice. One dance is for people who like rap, and the other is for people who like top 40 and country. I guess Eminem would give Louisiana a shock they would never forget. A white boy going to a rap dance? We all can tell what they mean by this!  The students even call it "the black prom" or "the white prom." Funny thing is, in my hometown, you had to join a "club" in order to go to the white prom. Only the club members were allowed to attend and bring a date. All members were white, by the way.

I have lost contact with most of my friends from high school because I do not agree with most of their ideas. The ones I do still talk to agree that we were raised wrong. I am happy to not live there anymore because I am a mother of two and plan on bringing my kids up where they treat people based on how people treat you, not on the color of your skin.

Your column brought me back to my high schools days, and unfortunately, I have a lot of kin who are still living this way. May God show them a change of heart.

Koddie Al-Rahbi lives in Eugene and attends LCC.

Memories of a Prom -- In Color

May 13, 2003 -- When it comes to prom, Nia Hightower says the only issues of black and white should be about tuxedos. She recalls her own prom and shares what she thinks students at Taylor County High School are missing.

By Nia Hightower

The cars have been waxed. Shoes shined, makeup applied. And high school teens are looking for a good time. Isn't that what prom night should be?

For most, prom is an American tradition. It's the last formal, social event for students as they're on the way out the high school doors. Seems like mere days have passed since I was running around trying to make sure that last curl was in place and that forehead-shine stayed powdered.  In fact, it was only days ago that I helped my little sister prepare for her foray into a "Night Under the Stars" here in Montgomery.

As I snapped the final photo and watched her ride off with her date, I couldn’t help but feel relieved that her night would not be marred by the heavy weights of exclusion or separation. The same could not be said of some Butler, Ga., students who would be celebrating their prom a week later. Taylor County High School students were supposed to attend a prom filled with memory-making moments of the classmates they walk the halls with daily, the classmates they cheer with during sporting events, the classmates they sit with in class. That didn't happen.  Instead, the week prior to the planned prom date, a small group of students decided to hold their prom the "traditional" way, with music, dancing and food -- and without their African-American classmates.

The return to a whites-only prom came after last year's integrated prom, which had broken a chain of segregated proms spanning more than 30 years. Why? Nearly 50 years after Brown v. Board of Education, why are there still segregated proms?

"It's just the way it has always been, a tradition," one student told CNN as she attended the May 3 whites-only prom. Thank heavens we had the foresight to break away from the "tradition" of slavery, the "tradition" of prohibiting women from voting, the "tradition" of living without electricity. I say this jokingly, but these young people decided, and were supported by their parents, to exclude a group of people from a social gathering on the basis of skin color, and that's a "tradition" that should have changed long ago. "But there's going to be black people catering there, so it's not a racist prom," said another attendee. Luckily, a more inclusive prom was held a week later for the Georgia students. Some who attended the whites-only prom also attended the second event.

More than students at fault
While I don't agree with the nonchalant attitude of the students toward this antiquated tradition, I find it hard to blame only them for their decision. Although the school system says it has nothing to do with the segregated affairs, it most certainly contributed to the success of those promoting divisiveness. After much national attention, school Superintendent Wayne Smith came out to divert blame from the school district. He told the Columbus (Ga.) Ledger-Enquirer that the school decided against sponsoring the proms for liability reasons. He said the nearest place to hold such an event is about 50 miles away. "It's too much of a liability. It's too much of a risk," he told the Ledger-Enquirer. OK, it's about liability. That would make sense if they didn’t have school-sanctioned athletic events that require travel to other locales or field trips. Smith said he plans to ask the school board to sponsor the annual prom. This seems to be a step in the right direction for a school that also has segregated student councils and class favorite categories. Smith said the media's prom coverage has given the nation an unfair image of Taylor County. "The main thing is the image out there," he said. "It's hurting the schools." Really, though, it's the students who are being hurt.

Maybe in some bubble of a world the students, who deemed it necessary to have a separate event from their African-American classmates, will be able to function without having to socially deal with people unlike themselves. That's unlikely, though, and I fear they will have a hard time coping with the reality of a world filled with people of different cultures, classes, ethnicities, religions, hair colors and shoe sizes.

What remains sad about this situation is that, in 2003, this is not an isolated incident. East of Taylor County at the other end of the state sits Johnson County, birthplace of football great Herschel Walker. Johnson County High School continued its tradition of holding separate proms when students held their whites-only prom on May 9. That's balanced by a dance at St. James High School in southeast Louisiana, where students held their first integrated prom in 34 years on the same night Taylor County held its whites-only event.

Looking back on my own prom, way back in the day, I have to say the most memorable moments were those with my friends, black and white. I couldn't imagine not being able to see the quiet girl in my Algebra II class tear up the dance floor or the opportunity to see the class clown be turned away after strutting into the building with cut-up jean shorts, a tuxedo shirt, bowtie and tails. None of that would have been possible if my white classmates had not been invited to my prom. Students should not be cheated out of an all-inclusive high school memory.

Prom, as an American tradition, a rite of passage, shouldn't be about segregation. The only issues of black and white for prom should be limited to tuxedos.

Nia Hightower is a research analyst for the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Project.