Will You Go To (Integrated) Prom With Me?

The landmark case Brown v. Board of Education, 347 U.S. 483 (1954), ended legal school segregation more than six decades ago. This is an example of how the the law changed before individuals’ minds did. The civil rights movement and racial strife continued in the United States through the 1960′s and in many ways are still not over. Although there is no longer legal racial segregation, there are still instances of de facto segregation and private segregation, and individual racism.

Nettie and Nickie Hunt on the steps of the Supreme Court following the Brown decision.

One such example is the prom situation at Wilcox County High School in Georgia. The school and its activities are integrated. The school’s proms however, have not been integrated. After years of separate events, a group of students is pushing for an integrated prom. In 2013. The term prom may be a bit generous as the school does not sponsor an official prom. The events–a “white prom” and now, an integrated prom for all to attend–are private dances. They are sponsored and financed by private organizations and individuals. It is sad but sadly not surprising that this sort of thing still exists in our country.

A scene from Little Rock, AR in 1959. The law requires public places and activities to be integrated. Private events and places…not so much.

How is this legal? In short, civil rights law really only governs public places, actors and events. The 14th amendment prohibits legal segregation–most notably segregated schools and other public facilities. The Civil Rights Act of 1964, among other laws, prevents common carriers, businesses and other parts engaged in commerce from discriminating. Many states have their own laws against discrimination. Private parties (meaning both people and actual party-type parties) and events are often beyond the reach of the 14th amendment and civil rights laws and are even Constitutionally protected in different ways. The 1st amendment protects the rights of free expression and association. That is why groups that promote racist, sexist and other unpopular views are allowed to exist and publicly demonstrate. That is the way the law should work: as has been proven throughout history, unpopular ideas need the most protection.

In this case, the segregated prom is a private event in much the same way an invitation-only ball is. It cannot use public facilities, such as a school gym, but can rent a private space. The public school is not allowed to sponsor or promote it in any way. The integrated prom however was allowed to hang up signs because even though it is also private, is not discriminatory in nature.

Bayside always had an integrated prom.

Although we have come a long way from separate-but-equal and racial riots, there is still a long way to go. In Georgia and in the rest of the states. This group of students is going in the right direction.

Chris DeMatteo is an attorney and the sole member of DeMatteo Legal Solutions at 2911 Dixwell Ave., Ste. B10, Hamden, CT. Call (203) 691-6594 or visit the office website. Attorney DeMatteo represents clients in criminal, juvenile and civil matters in all of Connecticut's courts.

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