After prom, after graduation, after all the senior-year pageantry, I hope each and every one of the graduates – black and white – from Charleston High School are able to put their sad little town in the rearview mirror.
Maybe that’s not the right thing to say.
But I can’t help myself. This is how I feel. When HBO’s fascinating but frustrating documentary, “Prom Night in Mississippi,” reached its uplifting – though carefully planned – denouement, I found myself wanting a more satisfying final act for the teens trapped in this Mississippi Delta backwater.
So what brought the film crew to town?
Well, like a lot of places, Charleston, Miss. – pop. 2,100 – moved deliberately in complying with the 1954 Supreme Court decision to desegregate its schools. Blacks student weren’t allowed inside the classrooms and hallways of Charleston High until 1970. But the integration was far from complete: white students went to one prom while the blacks went to another.
After 27 years of segregated proms, celebrated actor – and Charleston native – Morgan Freeman came to the school with an offer. He volunteered to pay for the prom, as long as it was integrated. Believe it or not, his offer was turned down.
We pick up the story 11 years later, when Freeman again comes to school officials and students with a plea to end the segregated proms. This time, they take him up on his offer.
So we follow Freeman on his journey back to his hometown, a hardscrabble north central Mississippi town of about 2,100 with a median annual income of less than $18,000. Half of the children in town live below the poverty line – some important context that we never learn from the filmmakers. In fact, Charleston is the county seat of one of the poorest areas of Mississippi, which makes it one of the poorest areas of the country.
And soon we’re meeting the kids, who are as smart and funny and silly and innocent and naive and manipulated as any kid that shared a classroom with you in high school. But, of course, it’s not the teens who are the problem in Charleston.
In front of Freeman and the cameras, the students seem willing to party together. Away from the cameras, the white students meet with their parents later and decide to hold their own segregated senior prom anyway.
“A lot of the older people I know, they’re pretty racist,” said Andy, one of the white students who decided to go only to the integrated prom. “They wouldn’t, like, be the kind who would go hang anybody or anything. They just talk about it a lot. They talk about black people.”
Another student identified as “Billy Joe” but who we never see on-camera said: “I don’t look at someone because they’re white or because they’re black. I just look at people because of what’s inside of them. How they make me feel when I’m around them. But the adults around here. You don’t tell them that. Because they’ll get mad at you. Real mad. There’s people around here who will disown their kids if they try to mix things up like that … A lot of parents are like that.”
As expected, what’s missing from the documentary are the voices – and faces – of those fighting hard to keep the prom from being integrated. Few white parents are willing to go on camera, and their voices and grievances are sorely missing from the film. From their children, we hear what you might expect: they don’t want niggers grinding all up on their daughters. It always comes down to this, it seems. That fear has “just drowned out common sense,” Freeman said.
The few white parents willing to speak publicly don’t come off at all like Bull Connor or David Duke. Far from it. In fact, one of the most reasonable people in the documentary might be Glenn Sumner, a self-described “redneck” whose daughter Heather dates a black student named Jeremy.
Sumner does not approve of the interracial relationship – the only one in the school – and says so: “She hollers I’m racist. You can ask anybody that knows me … which, several hundred people around town know me because I’ve been here for years and years – I’m not a racist. I’ll help anybody in any way that I can. But like I say, it’s just going to be so hard on her when she gets older. She got blinders on; all she can see is straight ahead. She can’t see from side to side because she ain’t got no experience in life.”
Really, it’s not important whether Sumner is racist. He probably is. But his concerns are well-intentioned and valid, as long as Heather and Jeremy spend their lives in Charleston.
Which is the problem.
The kids go to the prom. Everyone seems to have a good time, including one tiny but indomitable freshman girl who served a senior on the dance floor. The prom goes off without a hitch. Freeman should be applauded for his effort.
But when all the dancing is over, you might find yourself wondering how much really changed. And then you find out that Charleston High had another all-white prom the following year. Segregation survived after all.
For the sake of Andy, Billy Joe, Heather, Jeremy and all the other teens, I hope they set out for brighter horizons – even if it’s only Jackson – after graduation and only return to Charleston for holidays. The world has passed this tiny Southern town by, and only time and certain death can cure Charleston of its true ills.