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Diane Mufson: Teens fix the segregated status of their prom

May. 15, 2013 @ 08:49 AM

Spring is prom time at most high schools around the country. If you’ve been downtown in Huntington the past few weeks, you’ve seen hundreds of happy young couples decked out in festive prom attire.

For the past few decades, most high schools around the nation have had one senior or junior/senior school prom. But not Georgia’s Wilcox County High School; it traditionally held two proms, one for white and another for African-American students.

Earlier this year, four female students, two black and two white, decided that in 2013 it was ridiculous to hold two separate proms for kids who have gone to school together their entire lives. They organized students and community supporters so that Wilcox County High School could and would hold an integrated prom. They achieved national attention for doing what school authorities should have done ages ago.

It wasn’t the school that organized the separate proms. The school is integrated, and black and white students sit side-by-side in classes and at school events. Yet, to make sure the races did not spend time dancing together, the community sponsored the separate proms. They were “invited-only” events.

Some community members indicated that no one objected to the tradition of separate proms until the school received so much publicity. They felt that each race “preferred its own kind of music.”

It’s easy to find rationales for those things we don’t want to change or accept. What the white adults in the community were really saying is “We don’t want our kids to become socially and emotionally close with non-white students because they may end up becoming a permanent couple.”

CNN’s story of the successful prom for about 100 students did include comments from an interracial couple that previously graduated from Wilcox County High School. They are married now, have a baby and live in California. They lament that they were unable to attend their senior prom together. Yet the thing that many community members silently feared, marriage between the races, became a reality without an integrated prom.

But it’s 2013 and there is an electronically connected world beyond this community of about 9,000 people. The four young women students aired the situation on Facebook, and reportedly had “24,000 fans and raised enough money to rent a ballroom, buy food and gift bags.”

Proms have always been special, often emotional and always a source of gossip or even scandal, as to whom is going with whom. Often there is great joy in prom night or, as happened in Huntington in 2005, unbelievable sadness from tragedy and deaths.

Wilcox County High School’s proms did not run afoul of any laws. They were private gatherings supported by private funds. But a senior prom has traditionally been for seniors to have one last party together to celebrate the end of one chapter of life.

Before the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education in Kansas, proms and school activities would have been separated by race in areas of the country where segregation was expected and practiced. Following the “separate is not equal” ruling regarding schools and education and after the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the idea that any school-related functions could be segregated by race became outdated.

After the first integrated prom, Wilcox County Superintendent of Schools, Steve Smith, told CNN, that the “High school leadership will consider hosting a prom in 2014 … It’s a shame, I guess, that it takes four high school girls to open our eyes.”

Yes it is.

Diane W. Mufson is a licensed psychologist. She is a former citizen member of The Herald-Dispatch editorial board and a regular contributor to The Herald-Dispatch editorial page. Her email is dwmufson@comcast.net.