Integrating the Prom By Margaret Gabriel

Kevin-largeOn May 21, 1999, Kevin Flack's 17th birthday, he piled into a limousine with friends bound for the Metter High School prom. That night was destined to be remembered not only by the students in the limo and at the dance, but also by the entire community of Metter, Ga. For the first time since the mid-1970s, black and white students from this southern Georgia community attended the same prom—not two separate ones segregated along racial lines. And that was largely because of the efforts of Kevin, a member of Glenmary's mission parish in Metter, the only active Catholic in the 1999 Metter High School junior class, and president of the Junior Club, which sponsored the prom. Metter integrated its student body in 1966. And when black and white students began to go to the same school, the prom integrated as well. For a while. Carvy Snell, editor of the Metter Advertiser and father of one of Kevin's classmates, described what happened as a “classic example of rural South Georgia.” In order to skirt integration, the proms became private events, separated by race and sponsored by clubs rather than by the school. When the Junior Club began planning the 1999 prom, they not only questioned that tradition of segregated dances, they overthrew it. “Because it was the right thing to do,” Kevin explains without fanfare. When the school year started, it was understood that, as in the past, only white students would attend the Junior Club prom-planning meetings. Kevin remembers talking with his friend Justin Jones, shortly after the beginning of school, about the injustice of separate proms. They decided to encourage their black friends to break the ice. That day it was announced on the school intercom that the Junior Club meeting that night would be open to “anybody and everybody who is interested in going to the prom.” Other pro-integration juniors told Kevin that the announcement started people whispering, “What does this mean?” They could sense a change in the wind, he says. “Four black kids did come to the meeting that night,” Kevin reports, and the ball started rolling. “We were always a tight-knit class,” Kevin says of his fellow juniors at Metter High School. “We played a lot of sports together, and sports really cuts across the races.” Kevin played basketball, ran cross-country and was the starting catcher on the baseball team his sophomore, junior and senior years. “When you're on a team together, you get a lot closer,” Kevin says. But there were still hurdles to overcome. The “junior dues” of $135, which provided admission to the prom both junior and senior years, was a barrier to low-income students, both black and white. The black kids had traditionally held their prom at the Metter Community Center, the only facility available to them, with music provided by a DJ. The white kids arrived at the Armory in limousines and danced to the music of a live band. The high cost of the prom could be seen as an economic rather than a racial issue. But Kevin believes that the high dues, unaffordable for more black families than white, were intended to bar black students. “If you want to keep people out of the country club, you raise the dues,” he explains simply. When Kevin first mentioned to his mother, Jane, his desire to integrate the prom, he said he didn't think there would be an adverse reaction from his fellow classmates or from their families. He was wrong. Jane is quite forthcoming about the many difficulties Kevin encountered. “From the time he was very young,” she recalls, “Kevin would sit around listening to people say that segregation wasn't right.” When he decided to act on that conviction, she says, “that snowballed into the best and worst time of his life.” “I wasn't the most-liked student at Metter,” Kevin says. Jane calls that a bit of an understatement. “The hardest part was that the phone didn't ring,” she remembers. “Here he was, a teenager, and he was home on Friday night. He was home on Saturday night. He spent Sundays with us. Nobody called. Nobody asked him to go out.” The phone stayed quiet for three or four months, Jane recalls. But while she worried about the isolation from his classmates, Kevin was worrying about the success of the prom. He remembers being concerned that no one would come. “I prayed and I prayed and I prayed for him during all that,” Jane says. I asked God, ‘Is he strong enough to go through this?'” Sister of Mercy Paul Marie Westlake, the pastoral associate at the Glenmary mission in Metter, prayed for Kevin, too. She explains how hard it is for young Catholics in small, southern towns like Metter. They often stand slightly apart from their classmates, especially if they really live their faith. In many mission churches there is no peer group to support a young person—not even one other Catholic the same age. “Kevin was our only altar boy at Holy Family for years,” Sister Paul Marie says. Some Catholics in the area, she reports, have even left the Catholic church so their children could join the youth groups of other denominations and have more social opportunities. Before long, parents as well as students began attending the prom-planning meetings. And it was some of the parents, Jane reports, who created the most difficulties for Kevin. Jane and Elon, Kevin's father, offered to attend as well, but Kevin preferred to chair the meetings alone. “Just be there for me when I get home,” Jane recalls Kevin saying. “We learned that our role was to be his port in the storm,” she says. “He would come home and talk about what had happened at the meetings. He could filter his feelings through us, and the only perspective we had was his perspective.”As the date for the prom drew nearer, tensions began to ease. “Once the ticket money began to roll in, we knew everything was going to be OK,” Jane says. No one was terribly surprised when white students bought tickets. But when black students began to buy tickets as well, it was evident that the difficult times were passing. A week before the prom, everyone came together to start decorating the Armory. The students had settled on the theme “Forever Young,” and even rigged up a “fountain of youth” that prom-goers passed as they entered the Armory. “There were black kids and white kids, and black parents and white parents, and laughing and tomfoolery,” says Jane. “That's when you knew it would work.” It turned out to be the “biggest and best prom ever,” according to Jane. Other parents and students agree, even four years later. Sue Donaldson, the mother of Ashley, a black basketball teammate of Kevin, recalls that the class was very close, a quality she believes was key to the success of the 1999 prom. “They were united in athletics, they were united in the classroom; that night they enjoyed one another on a social level,” Sue says. About six weeks after the prom, Jane and Kevin were stopped on the street by the father of a classmate, a man who had lived in Metter all his life. “He said he was proud of Kevin for what he had done,” Jane recalls, “and that it was a shame it took so long for us to change.” He told Kevin: “None of the rest of us had the courage to do it.” Many people today recognize that the Metter community has benefited from Kevin's gifts of courage and leadership. But Sister Paul Marie made sure his service was officially recognized. She nominated him for the Bishop Gartland Service Award, given by the Diocese of Savannah in recognition of outstanding service and faithfulness. Inscribed on his award medal is the Latin phrase Vincit Veritas: “Truth Conquers.” Kevin is now a University of Georgia student on track to graduate with a degree in agricultural engineering in December 2005. He downplays the importance of his efforts in 1999, saying simply, “An integrated prom is the way it always should have been.” As he looks back now, he remembers that junior year at Metter High School as “a good experience, a rewarding experience.” He appreciates all the support and encouragement he received from his parents, friends and fellow parishioners. Sister Paul Marie stresses the key role played by Jane and Elon Flack—not only in Kevin's work to integrate the prom, but also in encouraging his steadfastness in church involvement. She likes to think the support of their Holy Family Catholic faith community played a role as well. “It's not easy to be a Catholic young person in the South,” says Sister Paul Marie. “Especially if, like Kevin, you really live the faith.” Margaret Gabriel, a freelance writer based in Lexington, Ky., works on contract with Glenmary’s Communications Office. This article appearted in the Autumn 2003 Glenmary Challenge, published by Glenmary Home Missioners, O,O, Box 465618, CinCinnati, OH 45246. www.glenmary.org.


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