CULTURAL BIGOTRY’S DWINDLING “INFESTATIONS”: Segregated Prom Nights in America

Talking Drum: At Peace...“Let me tell you a story about a boll weevil
Now, some of you may not know
But, a boll weevil is an insect

And he’s found mostly where cotton grows
Now, where he comes from, nobody really knows
But, this is the way story goes… just looking for a home… gotta have a home.”  (Brook Benton, The Boll Weevil Song

Southern Nurture or Southern Nature?

The hardcore issues of race and racism in the United States weave throughout our quilted, yet undeniably ugly, history like the once spiraling proliferation of the Deep South’s Boll Weevil. From the sweet smells of springtime’s cotton-planting season to the fall’s fading harvest of its flaky, crispy-critter leaves, as the chilling frost muffles the nighttime air, it creeps and crawls; “Just looking for a home…” The vulgar fact of the matter is that, like the Boll Weevil, racism too found an early home in America and seems to be forever seeking refuge from the stinkpot disturbances it also spawns. 

The pesky Boll Weevil searches for a sanctuary by burrowing within its own distinctive dung.  It’s plain ole poop which only they seem to smell, before surreptitiously weaving its destruction by dinning on seedpods and pre-bloom bits of America’s top value-added crop. Similar to the scourge of racism, to get rid of Boll Weevil infestations you have to smoke them out with scented lures, clean, disinfect and re-clean infected areas, while constantly sealing and monitoring  all possible access points for re-entry. Then, you’ll likely need to check your traps again, to see if you’re successful, like the ongoing check for cowering bigots, in battling the stench of systemic racism. This includes its funky rot which invades the senses and defies human logic. 

Born and bred in the South, mostly Kentucky’s thoroughbred and tobacco farm country, with summertime on my grandparent’s farm in Ohio, the persistent issues of racial discrimination and other southern cultural traditions came to mind, within the recent hoopla surrounding the “first-ever” integrated prom in Wilcox County, Georgia. While I probably couldn’t tell the difference between a Boll Weevil and a Blue Grass June Bug, Georgia is where some of our relatives hail from and I’ve heard many stories about the old cotton plantations, and Boll Weevil infestations. Though I never saw any cotton fields until I became an adult, I’ve had my share of run-ins with dyed-in-the-wool bigots and rigid racism, during my life’s journey.

But, this year, it was my school-teacher daughter that brought the nagging past to my attention. It was a past that I’ve since buried within the far corners of my mind.  It included the paradox of segregated prom nights. Along with other spirit-dampening episodes, they were buried deep, soon after being denied access “by majority vote” to our own high school’s prom in Kentucky’s early years of school desegregation. The traditionally all-white schmoozing affair became a nightmarish event for me and, perhaps, most of the black graduating students that year, 1961. 

Yet, we weren’t so surprised that it happened.  We were mostly miffed at how it unfolded.  Unceremoniously, it took place in the 11th-hour of the curtain falling on an otherwise, overall positive year of experimental classroom racial gumbo. But, I long viewed it as just another notch on the gun of the genteel South’s dogged resistance to Civil Rights and all things seemingly on a path to being right in America- merely another wicked, moral wrong. 

On the other hand, my daughter seemed more appalled with the idea that this Georgia high school was having its first-ever integrated prom- in 2013!  But, not me. I was not surprised, nor moved, nor bothered by the revelation.  That is, not exactly.  At least, not right away. 

Bigotry by Another Name? 

Like the “soft bigotry of low expectations” experienced from certain white teachers, during the years of school desegregation, I understood the mindset associated with some whites never expecting black students to go on to college, have decent jobs or experience post-graduate success and celebrations, like white students. It’s the same kind of blind ignorance that even President George W. Bush alluded to, within his speech to the NAACP, during the 2000 presidential campaign. He said, “Some say it is unfair to hold disadvantaged children to rigorous standards. I say it is discrimination to require anything less — the soft bigotry of low expectations” (from “Eleven Great Words from George W. Bush,” by William Watson, the Financial Post, May 2, 2013).  In my opinion, he was simply articulating the ideals and benefits found within a socially inclusive, humanistic society. 

But, within the pea-brained “wisdom” of bigots and racists, why bother with exposing so-called minority students to the perks of graduation?  That’s the kind of Jim Crow ignorance that guided the secret suit-and-tie bigots and bed-sheet cloaked racists in their missions to block interracial sex and marriage, as well as socializing- or, heaven forbid, the frightening possibility of kissing between a racially-mixed prom king-and-queen couple. So, the idea of still-segregated proms, in 2013, didn’t faze me a bit. Besides, the rag-tag remnants of former die-hard racist groups and covert right-wing-leaning factions, are still slinking about, today.

Yet, I was still surprised by the stand that Georgia’s governor, Nathan Deal, took on the matter. According to one local article, Governor Deal merely sneered at the effort.  The headline read, Governor Decides Support For Integrated Prom Is A ‘Silly Publicity Stunt,’” (written by Lorraine Devon Wilke, April 13, 2013, addictinginfo.org). 

Wow! Another redneck, knee-jerk reaction, similar to other public retorts and wisecracks by white politicians that I’ve seen or experienced over the years… Those were my thoughts.  And, they seem to have increased, following the 2008 election of President Barack Obama, in my opinion. That election was nearly 55 years in the wake of Brown v. Board of Education, 347 U.S. 483 (1954), the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case where the Court declared state laws establishing separate public schools for black and white students were unconstitutional. The election was also five long decades following my own inner rage and painful prom night realities. Just two years ago, I had attended my first-ever high school graduating class reunion.  My first, but the class’ 50th!  

The reunion took place during the year that our 6th grandchild was born and may have been the first real salve to sooth the years of hushed indignation. Yet, I was irritated because some 45 years on the heels of an Honorable Discharge from my country’s fully integrated military forces, segregated prom nights in the South was still a prickly thorn in this nation’s side. In addition to my daughter’s prodding, these were things spurred me to jotting down my thoughts. 

Same South, Different Politics? 

Even while writing, those thoughts tabbed over to the courage of Kentucky’s governor, Governor Bert T. Combs, before and after our prom night snubbing, and the tenacity of his daughter, my kindhearted classmate, Lois (now, Lois Weinberg). As white Southerners, they both demonstrated a rare kind of bravery in standing up for civil rights in an environment which must have unleashed significant white backlash and other shenanigans, from the more conservative white power structure and staunch defenders of “white privilege” (societal benefits and collective rewards received, as advantaged simply by being born white).   

As I recall, when Lois heard of the meeting, which voted against black students attending the prom, she urged her dad to do something about it. And, I’ll never forget the way he finessed the issue. Immediately following the prom, Governor Combs publicly, and emphatically, invited all members of the graduating class to attend a dance and dinner, at the Governor’s Mansion. Initially, mostly out of anger, I refused to attend.  Besides, other than being miffed at the entire situation, I simply reasoned that my contribution to the momentous cause of school desegregation was sufficient in having been a good athlete, not a good dancer. At least, that’s what I told myself. But, after some serious prodding and playful threats by one particularly persuasive mother of a close friend, I agreed to go.  After a few awkward moments on arrival, a couple of our forever-supportive white football teammates invited us to their table. It was a timely gesture similar to their on-the-field support, during a few racially tense moments, when playing away-games. Perhaps, what I recall most that evening was the sincere efforts of the other white students in attendance, not only to help the few black students feel welcomed and comfortable, but to unashamedly have a great time, themselves.

When my wife and I attended my first class reunion, I shared some of my feelings with Lois and her husband, as well as several other classmates.  She was characteristically humble about her efforts and a little teary-eyed at the acknowledgement. In fact, I was a little emotional, too, but managed to retain the same stoic front I used to show in the face of Old Jim Crow’s often silly and bumbling antics, years ago. But, this time, I felt that I was among friends. It was therapeutic. It was the same South, but different times- with somewhat different politics. In fact, later in life, Lois had become a politician, herself.  And, although unsuccessful in her bid, she had challenged the senior U.S. Senator from Kentucky, Mitch McConnell, for his Senate seat in 2002- definitely Kentucky’s and the nation’s loss, in my opinion!

Progress or Fast-Reverse? 

According to a recent Huffington Post article (“Segregated Prom:  Wilcox County, Ga. High School Students Set Up First Integrated Prom,” by Mark Hanrahan, April 04, 2013), it was the students that organized their school’s “first-ever integrated prom.” The two black and two white graduating students that were interviewed said, “We are all friends… That’s just kind of not right that we can’t go to prom together.” The article mentioned that the school held separate proms for white and non-white students, as well as segregated homecoming celebrations. And, “If a student attempted to cross the segregation divide ‘They would probably have the police come out there and escort them off the premises,’” according to one of the white students interviewed by Hanrahan.

For many of us growing up in the South, on the cusp of the Jim Crow years and school desegregation, such customs come as no surprise. From what I can recall, it was an all-white student committee, heavily influenced by certain “upstanding adults” in our community, that “voted not to allow” blacks to attend the prom back then. This stoked the fires of a seething rage that smoldered within me for a very long time. And, the silly little pranks some of us pulled in retaliation that night did little to satisfy the humiliation. But, I was happy that the kids in Wilcox County, GA would not likely be crippled for life with the kind of simmering wrath I experienced.

Over the years, the sting of insults and righteous indignation, have been cooled by the touch of firm handshakes and consoling words from maturing classmates. But, other than a coalition of responsible black citizens that put together a separate “prom” dance for black students, the only other “upstanding adult” I recall during graduation was Governor Bert Coombs, buffered by his budding-politician daughter, Lois.  Ironically, I was thankful for the experience because it forever reminded me that, regardless of the systemic and burdensome “squeaky wheels” of racism in America, there are still many upstanding patriotic citizens that routinely demonstrate the courage of their convictions by intensely denouncing the ugly scourge of racism. I have observed this in athletics, military service, and civilian life. They far outweigh their “un-American,” racially divisive opposites.

There have been many gains in race relations and cultural diversity since the night of my graduation. Yet, it’s still the younger, high school and college-age crowd that seems better suited to eradicating the sickening drip of racism and feeble-minded bigotry, still lurking about, today. Frankly, I no longer have any faith in this current, pathetically divisive and self-serving Congress. It seems abundantly lacking in the capacity or willingness to do anything but stifle and stall the efforts our nation’s first black president. I have more confidence in our younger generation of aspiring professionals to squash or beat back this new rash of revolting racism and fake superiority complexes.  

It’s probably uncertain where humiliating prom night segregation falls on the “Holmes and Rahe” scale of life-changing stressors. But, racism-related stress is a valid life event, as well. Surely, these infestations of cultural bigotry, in the United States, must be dwindling.  But, like the pesky and stubborn Boll Weevil, racism too is forever looking for a home. And, smoking it out wherever it exists is a great disinfectant.               

“Backstreet Djeli”  w.d.s.

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About William "Duke" Smither (formerly, pen name: "Backstreet Djeli")

William "Duke" Smither, author of “BACKROADS TO 'BETHLEHEM': Odysseys of the Maroon Warrior, in the Shadows of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade,” is a Frankfort Kentucky native; Richmond Virginia resident. Retired Public Utility Sr. Investigator and nuclear site worker, Married w/ 3 children and 6 grandchildren; U.S. Navy Viet Nam Era & Cuban Missile Crisis Veteran; Member of "Cuban Blockade Survivors" & The American Legion; B.S. Degree (Business Mgmt) w/ independent studies in Ancient African History and African-American History. Post-graduate studies in Criminal Justice Administration. Former Sports & Feature writer for the weekly Richmond Afro-American Newspaper, during Freshman year of college. Retirement activities include: Freelance writer, playwright, actor and director of faith-based community theater productions; founder of "Backstreet's Blog" ("Talking Drum Dialogues") at www.backstreetdjeli.com and contributing writer for "BlackPast.Org," the international, on-line reference center for African American History. His debut novel, “BACKROADS TO 'BETHLEHEM': Odysseys of the Maroon Warrior…,” is the first installment of a possible historical-fiction trilogy.