Prom Night in Mississippi

(This post is part of a series concerning Curtis Flowers, an innocent man convicted of a horrific crime that has divided a small Mississippi town.  Information on the Flowers case can be found here.)

Lydia Chassaniol’s decision to address a group famous for it’s crude racism has Mississippi baffled (thus far, no one else is paying attention).  Why would an astute politician with a reputation for Christian rectitude feel “hopeful” talking to a roomful of unapologetic white supremacists?  This doesn’t sound like political opportunism if you live in Washington DC or even Jackson, Mississippi; but Miss Lydia knows what’s she’s doing.

In the late 1990s, just as Trent Lott and Bob Barr were apologizing for their association with the Council of Conservative Citizens, Governor Kirk Fordice refused to back away from the racist organization.  Lott and Barr had to adapt their rhetoric to the norms of Washington DC; Governor Fordice had only the voters of Mississippi to worry about.

Lydia Chassaniol had little to gain from addressing the CCC.  Only 300 delegates heard her speak and only a few dozen of that number will ever pull the lever in the Senator’s district.  So why bother?

Miss Lydia was sending a signal to the residents of communities like Winona, Greenwood and Grenada:  she feels their pain and shares their anxiety.  That’s a message that gets people elected.

In 1998, actor Morgan Freeman offered to pay for a racially integrated prom in his hometown of Charleston, Mississippi, just up the road from Winona.  White community leaders turned him down flat.   A decade later, with a team of Canadian documentarians in tow, Freeman renewed his offer.  This time he struck paydirt.  Well, sort of.  Several white families refused to participate (you can find an article and YouTube video here), but Charleston Mississippi (population 2,000) now has an integrated prom.

HBO will be airing the “Prom Night in Mississippi” documentary on July 20th.  The Southern Poverty Law Center is cooperating with the Freeman project (information and a second HBO promo here.)

Morgan Freeman was the writing on the wall.  Other little communities in rural Mississippi, Winona among them, have also integrated their prom nights in the last few years.

Lydia Chassanioldidn’t have to worry about black classmates when she attended Winona High School.  Mississippi schools didn’t integrate until 1970. Miss Lydia didn’t have to worry about black folks at church or at the country club either.  No one helped little towns like Charleston and Winona with the sea change of integration; they just fumbled through it as best they could.  You either sent your child to one of the segregation academies the Council of Conservative Citizens was sponsoring, or you made the most of a bad situation.

This doesn’t mean the woman is entirely sheltered from American diversity.  She has taught in the integrated Winona public school system, she has worked with black children in the impoverished Mississippi Delta (on the western boundary of her district) and she served for many years on the Mississippi Parole Board (she is a big supporter of early parole and alternatives to incarceration).  It could be argued that small town Mississippians like Lydia Chassaniolhave more personal experience with black people than most white American suburbanites.

But the Senator’s heart and head live with the white folks who elected her and on whom her re-election depends.  How else do you explain the lovefest in Jackson with one of the most virulently racist organizations in America?


The first time I visited Winona I was repeatedly informed by black residents that only whites were welcome at the County Club and that the community had a restaurant with a white-only clientele.  Initially, I was skeptical.  Segregated restaurants are illegal.  I was told that if you don’t advertise yourself as a business the law doesn’t apply.

Curious, I dropped in for breakfast.

If you didn’t know the place was a restaurant only the cars parked outside would have given away the secret.  The food was terrific, my server was delightful, the camaraderie was touching and every person (other than cooks) who walked into the establishment during the ninety minutes I was in the place looked like me.  An old rusted sign hangs from an inside wall: “Dutch Mill Cafe”.  I guessed that the sign was once displayed out front in the good old days when segregated restaurants were the norm.

When you grasp the significance of segregated proms and white-only restaurants in the twenty-first century Lydia Chassaniol’s dalliance with a egregiously racist organization begins to make sense.

This is the second in a series of posts about the tragedy that has divided a Mississippi town.  Parts 1 and 3 can be found here and here.