Former Civil Rights Youth Activists Will Finally Have Prom, 50 Years Later

Black Birmingham, Alabama, students were stripped of prom because of racism in 1963.

Posted: 05/03/2013 10:17 AM EDT

Prom is one of the most common rites of passages in American culture for teenagers. It's a night of memories that many hold on to for the rest of their lives. Unfortunately, that privilege was stripped from African-American high school students in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963.

Students had participated in the Children's March organized by Martin Luther King Jr. to protest against segregation in their schools. This resulted in the city removing many privileges from Black youth in town.

Images of young civil rights activists fighting for change are still moving till this day — it was a huge act of bravery. Many forget that these were still teenagers who naturally wanted to dress up in tuxedos and pretty gowns for their senior proms.

Fifty years later, the Black high school students who didn't have a chance to go to prom will be able to fill that memory missing from their photo albums. 

The Root reports:

On May 17 at the city's Boutwell Auditorium, the Class of 1963 will finally get to have its prom. Alumni from about 10 formerly "colored" high schools are coming together with the help of the city of Birmingham to put on the event. The price of admission — $19.63.

"Some people tell us, 'That was 50 years ago. Get over it,' " [Earnestine] Thomas said. "But the fact remains, we didn't have a prom. We didn't have a yearbook. It was almost as if we were locked down under martial law."

The prom, she said, is "about healing a wound — a wound that has been there for 50 years."

Not having a prom had been the least of the threats from school officials who sought to discourage students from participating in the civil rights marches, said Brenda Phillips Hong, a graduate of Western-Olin High School. "There was the threat of not graduating after going to school for 12 years," she said. "There was the threat of being expelled from school, and there was that chance your mother would get you because she told you not to go downtown and march in the first place."

Not having a prom left a void, Hong said. Her family had bought her long prom dress on sale after Easter at an upscale store. Her sister-in-law in California had sent her shoes to wear to the prom.

The students of 1963 learned to deal with disappointments and being put down by whites. They have memories of growing up in a world where they were not treated as equals. They vividly recall sitting at the back of the bus because that was the law, or holding their peace while being taunted by whites.

Read full story here.


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(Photo: Getty Images)

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