Gillian Laub's "Southern Rites"
Gillian Laub’s decade-long project Southern Rites focuses on documenting a long-standing tradition of a segregated prom and tragedy for one high school in Montgomery County, Georgia.
The book itself begins by discussing the prom, one for white students and one for black students, and the mixed feelings amongst both groups towards the notion of keeping the two separate. There was a general consensus that the prom was kept divided out of tradition – for sake of the parents not wanting the groups to mix. Parents had even gone as far as to threaten their own students with punishment for challenging the segregation of the prom. In 2009, after The New York Times published an article written by Laub about the divide, it became evident that change was necessary within the community.
In a turn of events, most likely having to do with the criticism the town endured due to the article, the following year both black and white students would be able have prom together. A change was happening within the community – aside from the integrated prom, there was even a campaign to elect an African American sheriff for the first time in the county’s history.
However, adversity struck when an unarmed 22-year-old black man named Justin Patterson was shot and killed by a 62-year-old white man, Norman Neesmith. Patterson was the ex-boyfriend of a girl Laub had previously interviewed and written about. Neesmith had found Patterson and his brother visiting his niece in his home at night; when Neesmith had confronted the two boys with a gun, they attempted to flee, resulting in Neesmith firing and Patterson being shot multiple times. Although Neesmith was charged with involuntary manslaughter and being sentenced to a year in a detention program, it left a devastated feeling in the town.
Despite being set back, the town moved forward and held the integrated prom for the first time in 2011. The coming change was a positive one. The students were able to see past the decades of segregation that had been imposed by the previous generations and came together to celebrate, as high schooners should be allowed to. High school is a time where teenagers already feel a tremendous amount of pressure and no one should have to feel unwelcome – especially due to race.
Southern Rites by Gillian Laub is now available for purchase.
-- Jordan Felix