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The Integrated Prom: A Mississippi Editor Responds

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hide captionMississippi's Charleston High School held its first interracial prom in April.

Catherine Farquharson

Jackson Free Press editor Donna Ladd talks about you.

This year, for the first time, the high school in Charleston, Miss., held an integrated prom — ending a system of parallel parties for black and white students. After we covered the story this week, a whole lot of people wrote in to say they were just plain shocked that any kind of segregation could still exist in this country.

Um, private golf courses, anyone? Suburban high schools — and inner city ones? Your church?

Since I first learned about the integrated prom through a report in the Jackson Free Press, I called the editor for her reaction. Donna Ladd is a longtime friend and hero of mine. More than once, she and her staff have tracked down a suspect in a decades-old race murder. She runs an integrated paper with an integrated audience. In my book, Donna Ladd has earned the right to talk about this, and what she says is that we need to see what's happening right in our neighborhoods.

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That's a great response. I, too, was shocked by the prom story, but I really should not have been.

I grew up in a Chicago suburb where the black population was 25%. I went to a private college where it was about 3%. Now I live in California in a city where it is 1%.

If I'm going to be shocked by segregation, I should be shocked by the degree to which I and my family are segregated from people of other races -- especially considering that I'm mixed-race myself.

Sent by Edward Noodleburgh | 9:48 AM | 6-13-2008

It's an indication of how tough inertia can often be to overcome even when it might be to do the "right thing." It's one of the things that media should do.

When teaching Media Analysis & Criticism, I challenged the students to explain why (when we agree this is bad) that no one in the class knew there are more slaves today than at any time in the history of mankind http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/ngm/0309/feature1/

I wish media would spend more time on the "meat" and less on "fluff." Thanks for taking the time to bring this story to light.

Sent by Anthony Hunt | 9:54 AM | 6-13-2008

Great follow-up on your story about segregated/integrated proms. The general tone of the comments on the original blog entry did strike me as a bit overly simplistic and possibly even blindly self-satisfied. Kudos to you for taking the time to respond to your listeners in a direct and honest fashion. Looking honestly at ourselves and the practices that we condone -- even unwittingly - - is a key to making progress. You and your show have helped us (your listeners) take a step in the right direction. Nicely done.

Sent by Jonathan Nichols-Pethick | 10:17 AM | 6-13-2008

I am so surprised that people were surprised - look at the country's reaction ( i.e. Fox news) to the Obama campaign. Racism is alive and thriving in todays world.

Sent by Teresa Gieschen | 11:52 AM | 6-13-2008

I really appreciate the follow-up, but I respectfully would like to disagree w/the comments of Donna Ladd.

I am not a "white progressive" who thinks I am above the conversation about race. I realistically know there is racism all over the globe. I felt it in a very mild way as an Anglo person living in an area where a majority of the people I interacted with were Navajo and hispanic.

BUT I'd like to point out that the audio slideshow completely blew the minds of my 12-yr-old daughter and 9-yr-old son. No matter how I explained the current situation or the history of segregation and then integration struggles in the South, they could NOT understand why or how anyone would believe that skin color made a difference.

They are Anglo protestant children in a suburban school district full of Egyptian Muslim friends; Indian Hindu friends; Anglo Catholic, Jewish, and atheist friends. So even religion seems a non-issue to them right now.

They still need to be educated about the past so that they can understand the present and can be sensitive to others, but I don't think it is a bad thing that so many of the BPP listeners were shocked by the blatant racism. I think it's a good thing, and I hope it makes all of us listeners look at the subtle, unspoken racism and segregation that exists all around us.

Sent by T. Weiss | 11:59 AM | 6-13-2008

T. Weiss, I am not saying you and your children should not be "shocked" by separate proms. Of course, you should be educated by the past, which is what my paper spends a lot of time trying to do both in Mississippi and nationally. My point is that many people, even progressives, don't take a good look around them every single day at ongoing racism, and then sends too much shock toward a state where many people are actively and deliberately trying to change things. This piece should be motivating, I think, to people. Yes, be shocked--but don't stop there. Use our experiences to ask yourselves what is also shocking in your own communities.

Otherwise, cheers to you for having the conversation with your kids. Too many people here in Mississippi, and beyond, no longer want to talk about race. And we have to watch the trap of people who believe they are so "colorblind" that we can jump past problems that still exist and create an uneven playing field.

We always like to say: We're looking to the future by facing our past. You have to do both, and there is something wonderfully freeing in doing so.

Sent by Donna | 12:47 PM | 6-13-2008

I think the follow up to this piece was right on. I grew up in the suburbs of NYC where many of these so called progressives live. So many times growing up there it became apparent that many of them were only paid lip service to racial equality. My town was probably 90% white and when my family had a 5 year old girl from Africa live with us it was amazing the amount of bigotry that showed up on so many levels. When we enrolled her in our local elementary several of her kindergarten classmates used racial slurs that lucky she did not understand. When the teacher heard these and informed my parents it was baffling how this type of thing could start at such a young age. Obviously these 5 year olds learned these types of words and behaviors from their parents.
No matter where we are in the country, underground or overt racism is still a part of everyday life for too many people in this country. What is lacking in the north, south and everywhere in between many times is an honest dialogue about race and our society. For the people cushy suburbs these facts can be pushed out of mind by the monthly trip to volunteer at the food pantry or a charitable donation, in other places tradition can be used as an excuse. Thanks BPP, I hope this can help bring this reality to the front of more people's minds.

Sent by Greg | 1:35 PM | 6-13-2008

@Dave Nice to hear from you. I don't think Donna Ladd's point is that white people MUST be racist. Rather, I think she's saying that racist conditions -- and segregation -- exist everywhere.

Sent by Laura Conaway | 3:24 PM | 6-13-2008

So when Rev. Wright says "Goddamn America" could this issue be one of the reasons why? What do you think the black youth will take awy from this experience? We're not all the Sydney Portier image of what society wants us to be. This should not have been an issue in 1908 and definately not now in 2008. When will whites have their million-plus man march and atone for their legacy?

Sent by authorNYSE | 3:39 PM | 6-13-2008

I really appreciated the follow-up segment on this story. I related with Laura's comments about getting defensive of your home state. I grew up in Virginia in a very integrated area. I did witness a few blatant acts or statements of racism, but the vast majority of people I knew were open-minded and critical of racist views.

Now I live in central Pennsylvania, and although it's really not that far from VA, I find myself defending the south all the time. Many people here believe that all Southerners are racist and stupid. At the same time, I've noticed serious underlying racism in the culture here. The population is largely white, so people rarely have the opportunity to socialize or work with people of other races. They just assume that they are not racist and do not bother to examine their own prejudices

This story has brought to light huge problems of racism that still exist in this country. However, I agree with Donna Ladd that instead of just condemning other people, we should all take this opportunity to examine our own prejudices, regardless of where we are from.

Sent by Jenny Hayden | 3:43 PM | 6-13-2008

True, Laura. And I'm saying the response should always be shock, and then "what else have I missed?"

And all, note that the "Donn" comment just above at 12:47 from from me. Somehow I truncated my own name. Go figure.

Sent by Donna Ladd | 4:04 PM | 6-13-2008

@Laura Conaway: "Rather, I think she's saying that racist conditions -- and segregation -- exist everywhere. "

"One of the biggest barriers we have are white progressives or any progressives who want to believe they are above the conversation. That they live in a situation because they don't live in the south or they work with people of another race or ethnicity or whatever. They live in a situation where they're above it and the truth is no one does."

and later

"A story like this, the best thing that can come out of it is that people watch that piece and then they say that you know what, what can I do that's something like that. What can I notice that I've had blinders on about?"

I am pleased to have misinterpreted the thrust of Donna Ladd's remarks. The two quotes above illustrate the source of my confusion. The fact that white people are specifically called out and white progressives are called "the biggest" barriers. I'd like to think that white is something that can't be helped, and that progressive is a good thing. It is possible that white progressives who don't think they are "above the conversation" are not the problem, but it is easy see how the remark could be misinterpreted. The second quote implies that if we do not see segregation then we are blind. Possibly, but I think it is equally harmful to go looking for racism where none exists.

My wife and I always say that a movie must have been good or at least moving if we are still talking about it the next day. The same should hold true about radio segments. And we are still talking about it. I'll find something else to do with my indignation and peevishness.

Sent by Dave Wiley | 4:34 PM | 6-13-2008

Well said, Donna...thank you for coming back home and working to make a difference. I hope the NPR listeners will take your words to heart and look around their own communities to find the prejudices that linger there.

Sent by Tricia Walker | 6:34 PM | 6-13-2008

Regarding racism: Back in the early 80's, while stationed in Charleston, SC, my wife and I had gone grocery shopping at a Food Lion store in North Chaleston. We had our daughter, age 5, and our son, age 3, with us. While going through the check out, the cashier started teasing my son by saying how cute he was and that she would like to take him home with her. My daughter vehemently told her that she couldn't do that. Surprised, the cashier aked her why not. To this day I still remember my daughter's response. " Who wants to see a little white boy with a big black girl like you?". Disregarding the shock and embarrassment the my wife and I both felt at the moment, I was enraged at whoever had planted that notion with my daughter. By the time we reached the car and started loading the groceries, I had calmed down enough to reach a decision on how to handle the situation. I made my daughter go back into the store by herself (actually I was about 60' behind her) and apologize to the cashier. When my daughter apologized, the cashier told me that it wasn't necessary for me to do that. My response was "oh yes it was. I'm stamping this problem out right now." Both my wife and I do not tolerate any racist attitudes around us and if others can't refrain from being rascist (no matter their skin color) in our presence, we don't associate with them after explaining why. The way I see it, the only way we can end racism is in the home and by personal example.

Sent by Mark Hartry | 6:48 PM | 6-13-2008

Hey Dave, I couldn't agree with your last statement more. I *love* that this story is causing all this conversation. Cheers to homegirl Laura and the BPP crew.

Note that I did not say that denial by white progressives is the "biggest problem"; I said it is "one of the biggest problems" (er, bigger), and I stand by what I actually said. I inhabit a world that has a great number of white progressives in it, among others, and very often a good conversation about diversity does not happen because those folks have a hard time admitting that they might get something wrong, too, or because they live in a smug bubble of betterness than folks, say, in my state. I've lived in those bubbles and, quite frankly, was a bit smug about it back in the days when I thought I was "escaping" race hatred by bolting from the South. The fact that I found really backward ideas about race (and, frankly, southerners) in unexpected places was part of what brought me on home to join what my friend Dick Molpus calls the "worthy scrap" right here at home. Quite frankly, it is tough to be assumed to be racist (or ignorant) or whatever, whether by racists who expect that you are because you're a white Mississippian or non-southern progressives who expect that you are because you're a white Mississippian.

Truly remarkable things are happening in Mississippi right now, and that ain't puffy PR. And they're happening in part because many people of all races are forming alliances and speaking up about lingering race problems regardless of who that irks (we like to call it the "each one teach one" approach). I believe strongly that we cannot sugarcoat a thing about the past, and that in turn earns us the right to tell people when they are buying into simplistic stereotypes about Mississippi (which doesn't help anything) without being accused of just being defensive. Both as a Mississippian and then as a New Yorker, I've seen both "sides" of the finger-pointing, and I'm tired of it. I want everyone to stand up and take responsibility for finally dealing with the problem of the color line, and to raise the bar higher than simply finding someone who is more racist to point fingers at. I'm not saying all the "shock" in response to the prom story is doing that, certainly, but I do think it's a chance to urge people not to take the easy road on this one.

Allow these kids, these Mississippians, to inspire change in your own communities. Tomorrow, reach out across the color line at least one time, or one more time, no matter who you are, in honor of the now-integrated Charleston prom.

And Mark, cheers, man. Love your story to pieces.

Sent by Donna Ladd | 9:43 PM | 6-13-2008

Why is everyone so suprised? Did Jena Lousiana surprise anyone?

Raven Symone did a movie about this called "For One Night" about segregated proms. I recommend you all watch it. Here is info:
http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0463996/
.

Sent by lilkunta | 6:49 PM | 6-14-2008

I have to take issue with the comments from listeners and/or readers that equate the de-facto racism that is still so prevalent in this nation with the blatantly racist "seperate but equal" prom in Charleston. It is truly shocking that any town in America could accept such a practice.

Yes, there are segregated country clubs, and racially divided housing patterns, and mtriad other examples of the still strong undercurrent of racism throughout this nation, as has been made clear with the Obama campaign. But nothing in recent memory seems so openly and brazenly racist as this segregated high school prom night, a shameful leftover from the Jim Crowe era.

Sent by Michael Kelly | 8:11 AM | 6-16-2008

I am not surprised but sadden that not only does segregation exist, people actually think it doesn't. We just go about our day with our ipods and cell phones and the majority of us believe its all good in the neighborhood, NOT!!!! Racism is alive and living in your hood and mine we should never forget and always be mindful of it some white people have not changed their minds and so it is... OBAMA FOR PRESIDENT!!!!!

Sent by Sondra | 9:24 PM | 6-17-2008

I left a comment on the original blog, voicing my concern over the utter shock (and hatefulness) coming from certain responders. After hearing Donna's follow up, I am glad to see I was not alone.

I am a white, Southerner who grew up in the 80's and 90's surrounded by black people marginalized by white society - stuck in cycles of poverty, poor jobs and being uneducated.

I don't know how anyone could witness those things and not believe racism exists.

Sent by J.S. | 3:36 PM | 6-19-2008

My name is Chasidy Buckley. I was a part of the integrated prom at Charleston High School. I am happy and excited that it has gotten so much feedback because it is a big issue no matter who doesnt think it is... IT WAS AND STILL IS A MAJOR ISSUE! Its just confirmation and a wake up call that its time for the world to deal with racism EVERYWHERE! I HOPE YOU ALL CONTINUE TO BE INTERESTED AND CHECK OUT "PROM NIGHT IN MISSISSIPPI" IN 2009!

Sent by Chasidy Buckley | 10:00 PM | 6-19-2008

I'm Joel Young and I graduated from this school the year before this took place. I attended the segregated proms, not because I was racist, but because it was prom night and it was the only prom I'd ever get to go to.

I agree with this response. Nobody should be surprised! It happens everyday from golf courses to private schools to... ANYWHERE!

I'm so sad that racism is still alive and thriving in our society, but I tend to be one who looks on the bright side of things. Our town, Charleston, Mississippi, is not the stereotypical southern town. Even though there is still racism, actions are not made in a hostile manner. Thank God for that!!

All I ask is that when watching this documentary, you do not see my hometown the wrong way.

Sent by Joel | 9:51 AM | 6-30-2008

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