I remember the big New York Times story in 2009 about a small town in Georgia who had segregated proms—yes, in 2009. Though the local schools integrated in 1971—17 Years after Brown vs. Brown of Education, the landmark case which denounced the idea of “separate but equal”—the proms remained white and black only, respectively. (Although white students were allowed to attend the Black prom.) The reason for the separation, which students interviewed by The Times seemed to be largely against? Tradition.
I was late to the party, learning that this was still going on in 2011. Nearly a decade earlier, photographer Gillian Laub was commissioned by Time Magazine to document the one-race only proms. In 2009, her photographs were published in the Times, which made the proms a national topic and finally nudged the town of Montgomery County to integrate in 2010.
Laub returned to the town in 2011 with a film crew to document the complicated race relations, racism and fear that persists there. The result, HBO’s latest documentary, “Southern Rites”, which is executive produced by singer/songwriter John Legend. (Laub also has a book documenting this subject with the same name.)
Laub showed up in Mount Vernon, Georgia for the high school festivities, but found so much more when she arrived. The first Black police chief was on a campaign to become Sheriff, and a young Black man was killed by a white man, after the man discovered him in his house at the invitation of the man’s (Black) niece. The town, unsurprisingly, was divided among racial lines.
“This is a story that needs to be told,” said Laub. “This film is about giving a voice to the people of Montgomery and Toombs counties. This is their narrative. “
Check out the trailer for “Southern Rites” below:
Southern Rites airs on HBO on May 18 at 9 PM. For additional information about Southern Rites, visit: HERE