Wilcox County High School student Mareshia Rucker (41NBC/WMGT)
Wilcox County High School student Mareshia Rucker (41NBC/WMGT)

(The Root) — Seventeen-year-old Mareshia Rucker knows her mind and is not afraid to speak it. She's one of the racially mixed group of student organizers who are putting together the first integrated prom at Wilcox County High School in Georgia, roughly a two-and-a-half-hour drive from Atlanta. She told The Root recently that the school, which historically holds two private, off-campus proms — one for blacks and one for whites — is "small, so for the most part you know everybody." She estimates the graduating class is fewer than 100 people, and the county itself has fewer than 10,000.

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"I told my mom I wanted [an integrated prom] to take place," she says. "She was on board with me, and I said, 'This is going to be done.' So I told people in school. We were actually in class that day, but we weren't doing anything. So I stood up and said, 'OK, you guys — public service announcement.' "

Mareshia says the student reactions to the idea were mixed, but that didn't deter her. "I don't take well to things that aren't right. You don't have to love me, but you have to respect me." It's not just Mareshia. Her white and black classmates who are co-organizers — including friends Stephanie Sinnot, homecoming queen Quanesha Wallace and Keela Bloodworth — feel that the tradition of segregated proms is disrespectful in this day and age, 50 years after the March on Washington.

Mareshia says a small group of students have been the core organizers — raising money through plate sales in the parking lot of the county courthouse, and also raising money online. The most surprising source of a donation: South Korea. "When people learn about what's going on, they're more than willing to help," she says. "In the Bible, it says you have not because you ask not."

The students have met their initial fundraising goal but are still looking to cover some transportation costs. Since the prom is fewer than 10 days away, those last donations, which you can make here, are crucial.

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Now that the integrated prom is not only a reality but a national news story, some seniors who might have otherwise gone to the white prom are buying tickets to the integrated prom. "There are always people who, when things blow up, they want to jump on the bandwagon. Don't try and be fake," Mareshia says, adding, "It's fine if you come."

Although the parents and families of white students organize the "white prom," racial issues in the county seem to be intergenerational. Reporter Tom George of WMAZ in Macon, Ga., has been following the story closely. From the accompanying article to a televised report:

Gary Gordon from Pitts says his prom was segregated, but that both races agreed to it. "We had a choice to have an integrated one, but we always chose to have a segregated one."

He said the separate proms "cause less problems between blacks and whites."

Gordon, who is white, is shown on camera and, although his age is not mentioned, appears to be in his 20s. Clearly, these are not attitudes held just by older members of the community.

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Mareshia believes that the school system should step up and throw an official integrated prom, something the system is considering doing for the first time next year. "In my opinion, because they are adults, I don't feel I should be having to do this," says Mareshia, although she says she doesn't mind organizing the dance.

The state's governor, Nathan Deal, was asked by a group called Better Georgia to speak out in favor of the integrated prom, as some Republican and Democratic state officials have done. But Deal, a Republican, had his spokesman, Brian Robinson, issue an email response saying, "This is a leftist front group for the state Democratic party, and we're not going to lend a hand to their silly publicity stunt." In other words, the governor would not entertain what some members of his own party support.

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Mareshia, who loves to cook and has been accepted into the Art Institute of Atlanta with a major in baking and pastry, was able to put her cooking skills to use as the students did a series of plate sales to raise money for the prom. "I did the chicken and baked beans this Saturday. Last time I did the potato salad, too."

But the money didn't go the prom. In a heartwarming twist, yesterday the student organizers announced that the money from their plate sales — $900 in total — would be split between the families of two local students whose homes burned down.

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The students are bringing the spirit of generosity not only to community members in need but also to the prom itself. There's no admission fee for seniors, and guests who are not in the senior class have to pay only $10. The students chose not to have a celebrity guest because they wanted to have an intimate night. Their theme: a Parisian masquerade.

So what is Mareshia going to wear? "I haven't even thought about dresses until last week," she says. "I was so busy getting everything where it needed to be. I was trying to get everything in place. I was trying to make sure everything is perfect." And then she laughs. "My mom was like, 'Calm down. It's not that serious.' "

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Mareshia credits not only her mother, Toni, but adviser Harriet Hollis of the Southwest Georgia Project for Racial Healing and of course her co-organizers with helping to plan the event. It's been a positive experience so far, but she is not sure how much it will change the overall climate.

"As far as our county goes, the reality is, racism runs really deep," she says. "I do think it will make a difference as far as prom goes. I'm not sure about other things."

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Farai Chideya is a distinguished writer in residence at New York University's Arthur L. Carter Institute for Journalism. She is the author of four books and blogs at farai.com.

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