Film shows students battle racism for mixed prom

Sun Jul 19, 2009 8:41am EDT
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By Michelle Nichols

NEW YORK (Reuters) - As Barack Obama campaigned to become the first black U.S. president, teenagers in the small Mississippi hometown of Hollywood star Morgan Freeman battled racism to hold their high school's first integrated prom.

A new documentary, "Prom Night in Mississippi," shows the students confronting racist attitudes in Charleston after school administrators let them decide if they wanted to accept Freeman's offer to pay for an integrated prom -- an annual dance for graduating students. Freeman's first such offer a decade earlier had been ignored.

While the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1954 that school segregation was unconstitutional, proms could still be held separately for black and white Charleston High School students because they were organized by parents, not the school.

"I think this is the stupidest thing I've ever heard of that in this time ... you children are being brought up this way. It hurts me deeply," the film shows Freeman, the Oscar-winning African-American actor, telling senior students when he made his offer for the 2008 prom.

The documentary, which premiered at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival, will be broadcast on the HBO network on Monday.

Canadian director Paul Saltzman, who volunteered as a civil rights worker in Mississippi in 1965, told Reuters in an interview that the prom organized each year for white students was always completely off limits to black students.

"But the black proms were never segregated. Whites could always go but almost never did because of social pressures in the town," he said. "The power structure of the town was quite happy with separate proms and the school board, in a sense, didn't do anything proactive."

About 400 students attend Charleston High -- about 70 percent of whom are black and 30 percent white -- in the town of about 2,200 people in the Southern state of Mississippi.   Continued...