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Film shows students battle racism for mixed prom

By Michelle Nichols

NEW YORK (Reuters) - As Barack Obama campaigned to become the first black U.S. president, teenagers in the small Mississippi hometown of Hollywood star Morgan Freeman battled racism to hold their high school's first integrated prom.

A new documentary, "Prom Night in Mississippi," shows the students confronting racist attitudes in Charleston after school administrators let them decide if they wanted to accept Freeman's offer to pay for an integrated prom -- an annual dance for graduating students. Freeman's first such offer a decade earlier had been ignored.

While the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1954 that school segregation was unconstitutional, proms could still be held separately for black and white Charleston High School students because they were organized by parents, not the school.

"I think this is the stupidest thing I've ever heard of that in this time ... you children are being brought up this way. It hurts me deeply," the film shows Freeman, the Oscar-winning African-American actor, telling senior students when he made his offer for the 2008 prom.

The documentary, which premiered at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival, will be broadcast on the HBO network on Monday.

Canadian director Paul Saltzman, who volunteered as a civil rights worker in Mississippi in 1965, told Reuters in an interview that the prom organized each year for white students was always completely off limits to black students.

"But the black proms were never segregated. Whites could always go but almost never did because of social pressures in the town," he said. "The power structure of the town was quite happy with separate proms and the school board, in a sense, didn't do anything proactive."

About 400 students attend Charleston High -- about 70 percent of whom are black and 30 percent white -- in the town of about 2,200 people in the Southern state of Mississippi.

'RABID PREJUDICE'

Freeman paid about $17,000 for the 2008 Charleston High mixed prom and contributed again to a second integrated prom this year.

But just months after Obama became president, a separate white prom for Charleston High was still held.

"That kind of rabid prejudice really is a mind-set that's extremely hard to change," Saltzman said.

"'Don't bother me with the facts, blacks are inferior, God made blacks inferior,' you hear all that kind of stuff," he said. "It's up to the younger generations to become more enlightened and to leave those patterns behind."

Former students Jessica Shivers, 20, and Chasidy Buckley, 18, graduated in 2008 and are featured in the documentary. Both say the town's racism stems from parents and that some white students were frightened of what their families might do if they were friends with black students.

"It's really stupid," said Shivers, who is white. "It's like the kids are the adults and the adults have no common sense ... the younger generations realize how stupid it is."

"I blame the parents for it," added Buckley, who is black. "But still, the school district could have done something."

Saltzman said segregated proms in the United States seemed to be a rare occurrence.

"The motivation for making 'Prom Night in Mississippi' is really to have young people especially see the film and even if only for a moment to check in with their own beliefs, their own attitudes, their own prejudices," said Saltzman.

"Nothing changes until you do," he said. "But now you have little people growing up and seeing a black president. It's a bit harder for their parents to tell them that blacks are inferior."

(Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst and Peter Cooney)

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