Georgia Governor Nathan Deal has finally decided how to handle a campaign by four Georgia students to hold their school’s first integrated prom: just walk away. Deal, who previously brushed off requests for him to support integration as a “silly publicity stunt,” told an Atlanta-Journal Constitution reporter yesterday that he thought the campaign was a private matter and not one that needed the state’s intervention:
DEAL: I believe that anything that’s associated with a school should not have the distinction or discrimination made based on race or gender or any other separation, but it appears to me that the parents and students have worked that out on their own, as they should.
We’ve come a long way in the state of Georgia. We don’t need things like this being divisive. We think we have put most of those issues behind us. None of us condone things that would send the wrong message about where we are with regard to race relations. But by the same token, I think that people understand that some of these are just local issues and private issues, and not something that the state government needs to have its finger involved in.
Deal’s comments that the students’ initiative was a local, private issue are in some ways similar to Sen. Rand Paul’s (R-KY) view that the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 violates business owners’ rights to “private ownership” by requiring them to abandon employment discrimination and whites-only lunch counters. It also completely misses the point of civil rights. The reason we have civil rights law is because we understand that certain private actions, such as race and gender discrimination, wound our society so deeply that they cease to be a merely private concern.
In the wake of Brown v. Board of Education a common tactic by white segregationists was to open private academies for white students that, because they were private and not public schools, evaded the Constitution’s ban on segregation. The segregated proms at Wilcox County High School appear to be a relic of a similar tactic. Parents, rather than the school board, sponsor the proms at this school.
To their credit, several Republicans broke with Deal and endorsed an integrated prom. Over the last few weeks, a group of students have raised money locally through food sales and online through their Facebook page, and are still collecting funds. They plan to hold the integrated prom on April 27, and the Wilcox County School Board has released a statement saying they plan to consider holding an official, school-sponsored integrated prom next year. Nevertheless, the students’ progress on this front does little to change the fact that segregation remained alive and well in this school district nearly 60 years after Brown.