For as long as most remember, Wilcox County High School hasn't sponsored a prom for its 400 students. Instead, parents and their children organize their own private, off-site parties, known casually as white prom and black prom -- a vestige of racial segregation that still lives on....
Mareshia and her friends bucked 40 years of local customs this month by organizing their own integrated prom, a formal dance open to Wilcox County's white, black, Latino and Asian high school students. Organizers, both black and white, said they lost friends in the process -- a grim experience in the waning weeks of the school year. It's been hard on the rest of their hometown, too.
When the story erupted on TV and social media, Wilcox County became a symbol of race relations stuck in the past. People around the world heard about the sneers from some classmates, the silence from some adults, the school board that says it supports them but didn't sponsor its own prom. Thousands lashed out at the old tradition or offered up kind words, cash, dresses, a DJ. Stunned, they wanted to know, could this be true? In 2013?
Segregated proms are a longstanding reality in this farming community 160 miles south of Atlanta, and until recently, at several schools nearby. Some in Wilcox County say it's just an old habit that's hard to break. A few argue the proms are private because of cost and liability or because parents won't cede control. They say people "self-segregate," and kids can't agree on country or hip-hop, "white music" or "black music."
Some say some preachers and some parents implicitly encourage segregation, but there's no point to arguing: People are entitled to their opinions, even if they're racist.
Plenty here shrug off the debate entirely and say a high school dance is nothing to make a fuss about.
Mareshia is 17, a good student, a cheerleader who's active in the Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps. She knew long ago that proms were segregated, but she didn't think much about it till last year, when she and three friends first realized they'd be split up.
"How do you want your last moments of high school to be," Mareshia asked herself then. "What do you want your memories to encompass?"
Image: Diverse group of prom-goers, via Shutterstock