Contributor Amy E. Feldman looks at how a segregated high school prom can take place, nearly 60 years after a series of historic Supreme Court decisions.
–Constance Baker Motley
When Constance Baker Motley, lawyer, judge, activist, and author of the original complaint filed in the 1954 case of Brown v. Board of Education, wrote those words, she could likely not have imagined that the issue of integration would still be a battle for students in public high schools almost exactly 60 years later.
This Saturday will mark the first time in the history of Georgia’s Wilcox County High School that an integrated prom, open to students of all races, will take place.
Until 2013, Wilcox County High School held two proms: one for white students and one for African-American students. It comes as a surprise to many that a tradition of racially segregated proms still exists—and leaves many with questions about the legality of the segregation.
In 1954, the Supreme Court was asked whether it was legal to segregate students in public school based on race.
The school district in Topeka, Kansas, as in other districts in the South, separated white students from African-American students into different elementary schools.
The NAACP sponsored a lawsuit against the Board of Education of Topeka, claiming that the segregated facilities violated the African-American students’ constitutional rights.
A unanimous Supreme Court ruled that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal” and as a result, the practice of segregation by a public school was held unconstitutional.
About 10 years after the Brown v. Board of Education decision, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, making it illegal for a place of public accommodation—an establishment that serves members of the public—to deny service or accommodation to a person on the basis of his race, color, religion, or national origin.
How can it be, then, that almost 60 years after the Supreme Court found that separate public schools to be unconstitutional and almost 50 years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 making segregation in all public accommodations illegal, can separate proms still take place?
The answer lies in the sponsorship of the prom.
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In many school districts, it is the school and its administration that organizes and monitors the school dances and the prom. In such cases, it is the public school that is responsible to ensure that it extends civil rights to all participants in school-sponsored events.
Similarly, a hotel or other public accommodation cannot prevent a person from entering the venue based on his or her race, color, religion, or national origin.
But the Wilcox County High School doesn’t organize the prom. It does not provide funding or space, it does not send chaperones, and it is not responsible for the event.
Nor does the accommodation at which the prom is held have a rule that says that students of a given race may not enter. Instead, the prom is a private event, organized by some parents and some students who decide who will be invited.
Just as the government doesn’t regulate to whom a student sends an invitation to a birthday or graduation party, neither does it regulate who is invited to a dance organized by private parties.
So while laws have eliminated segregation based on race in public education and public events, the laws do not prevent the students at the schools—or the parents of those students—from hosting segregated private events.
This year, students in the school have organized a third prom. There is a prom for white students, a prom for African-American students, and an integrated prom to which all students are invited, sponsored by current students at Wilcox County High School.
According to the statement on the district’s website, “The Board and Superintendent not only applauded the idea, but passed a resolution requesting that all activities involving WCS students be inclusive and non-discriminatory.”
The board plans to put the issue of having the high school officially sponsor an integrated prom next year on its agenda.
- Brown v. Board of Education, 347 U.S. 483 (1954). Read online at oyez.org.
Amy E. Feldman is the legal education consultant to the National Constitution Center. She is the general counsel of The Judge Group, Inc., a leading global professional services based in Philadelphia.