One of the worst things about writing a book about recent history is that the goldarned fools just keep making more of it. This is bad enough in any circumstance, but when your subject is the South, which the Ol’Bloviator’s always is, the problem is compounded by the fact every event suggesting one thing is certain to be followed almost immediately by one suggesting just the opposite. For example, here’s what the OB is up against as he struggles to put the finishing touches on a history of the South since World War II. (Yes, dammit! This is the same book he was struggling to finish this time last year. What of it? If you think you can do any better, he’ll be happy to let you try.)
James Young was still in elementary school in 1964 when an earthen dam outside his hometown gave up the bodies of three young civil rights workers and Philadelphia, Mississippi, became an enduring symbol of the savagery that had greeted those who were trying to bring racial justice to a still recalcitrant South. Nearly forty-five years later, last Tuesday to be exact, when Young won the Democratic Primary run off that, in the absence of a Republican opponent, assured he would be the city’s first black mayor, he described his victory as “an atomic bomb of change” for the town of 7,300 that had yet to shed its reputation as a citadel of white racism at its murderous worst. Campaigning against a white opponent on the proverbial shoe-string with no more than a dozen workers and volunteers and unable to afford even yard signs or buttons, Young had won 51.5 percent of the vote from an electorate that was 55 percent white. The key to his win, he believed, lay in his comfort in campaigning in all of the town’s neighborhoods, black or white. Looking back, he insisted, “[t]here was no real negativism in this campaign. . . . There was no door slammed in my face. . . . I even talked to my opponent’s mother.”
Here was an event suggesting that a real change in racial attitudes had finally come to a place where hope for it had once seemed nothing short of foolish, but as is so often the case with the South, the heartening news from Neshoba County was quickly tempered by a jarring reminder of how much resistance to change can be found elsewhere. Five days after James Young’s much-acclaimed breakthrough in Philadelphia, the New York Times Magazine ran a story that revealed how impregnable the inner ramparts of racial exclusion remained for some white southerners. Since 1971, when the public schools were first integrated in the onion-growing “Wiregrass” section of south central Georgia, Montgomery County High School has held only one school-sponsored mixed-race prom, and in keeping with longstanding custom, on May 1, 2009, the “white folks prom” proceeded without incident and without black students, save for a small group who showed up to cheer and snap photos as their gussied-up white classmates made their way inside. The following evening, the “‘black folks’ prom,” which was actually open to white students but attended by only one, also went off without a hitch. Students had planned both events, but neither were held on school property or supported by school funds.
Both white and black students claimed that they wanted an integrated prom, but their repeated efforts toward that end had been stonewalled by school administrators and white parents. According to Timothy Wiggs, student council president and one of 21 black students (out of 59) graduating in 2009, “We just never get anywhere with it.”
Turns out this ain't unheard of elsewhere. Even though the actor Morgan Freeman sprang for a big blowout last year at the first-ever integrated prom in his hometown of Charleston, Mississippi, some of the white parents insisted on staging an alternative event where even heavy tans were frowned upon.
Likewise, Montgomery County white students protested, perhaps a little too much, that that their parents were to blame for this awkward and anachronistic situation. Said one, “We do everything else together. We hang out. We play sports together. We go to class together. I don’t think anybody at our school is racist.” Terra Fountain, a white 2008 graduate who was living with her black boyfriend insisted, “[I]t’s the white parents who say no. . . . They’re like, if you’re going with the black people, I’m not going to pay for it.”
Fountain’s open cohabitation with a black man seemed to indicate that the old public sanctions against sexual intimacy between blacks and whites ain’t much of a “no-no” no more among the teen set in Montgomery County. The same was true of the even more striking story of Skyla Deem, who, escorted by her black boyfriend of eighteen months, Barry Burch, had been the only white student at the black folks prom. Barry admitted he had felt “kind of sick, kind of down” the next evening when Skyla attended the white folks prom without him because “I felt it was a hostile environment,” although Skyla’s selection as senior class president certainly suggested that their relationship bore no particular stigma among their classmates,
Yet, for all the evidence that the age-old taboo against interracial dating and sex might be in tatters among the teeny-boppers, maintaining the fiction was clearly important to a great many white parents. Kera Nobles, a black senior, noted that her white girlfriends would “tell you in a minute, ‘Don’t tell mama who I’m going out with’” because “[t]hey don’t want to get put out of the house.” Segregated proms were not going to stop interracial dating, she insisted, “One night is not going to change it.” Perhaps not, but this “one night” was obviously sufficient to give black students reason to reflect on their relationships, romantic and otherwise, with the white classmates who were partying without them. “My best friend is white,” one of the girls insisted. “She’s in there. She’s real cool, but I don’t understand. If they can be in there, why can’t everybody else?” Another was puzzled because none of her white friends had texted her during the prom. “I’m thinking that these people love me and I love them, but I don’t know. Tonight’s a different story,” she admitted. The color line might seem faded and fuzzy among the young set in Montgomery County most of the time now, but every year when prom season rolls around, there’s no pretending that it isn’t still there.
More than one observer picked up on the striking propensity for self-destruction among those who tried to make sense of the South back in the days when it seemed so hopelessly impervious to reform. Some of these troubled Dixiologists opted for the quick exit by hanging themselves from doorknobs, while others, like Faulkner, took their time and drank their way out. These days, the South torments us mainly by embracing change one minute and slamming the door on it the next. As the ol’ Bloviator can attest, this will still drive you to drink a mite more than you should sometimes, and although the suicide rate is down some among his kind, trust him, the whiplash can be hell.