In 2002 the American photographer Gillian Laub was sent on assignment by Spin magazine to Mount Vernon, Georgia, to document the lives of teenagers in the American South. Nestled among fields of Vidalia onions, it symbolizes the archetype of pastoral, small-town American life. Laub met and photographed many of the residents of Montgomery County, encountering a warm and polite community that was proud of its history and protective of its neighbors.
Yet this idyllic town had long been hostage to a dark past, manifesting the racial tensions that scar much of America. More than half a century after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 legally prohibited segregation, adolescent rites of passage in this rural countryside, including high school homecomings and proms, were still racially segregated.
Laub photographed the people of Montgomery County for more than a decade, returning to the town even in the face of growing—and eventually violent—resistance on the part of some community members. In 2009, a few months after President Barack Obama’s first inauguration, Laub’s photographs of segregated proms were published in The New York Times Magazine, bringing national attention to the town. The power of the photographic image served as a catalyst and, the following year, the proms were finally integrated. For a moment, progress seemed inevitable.
For a moment, progress seemed inevitable
Then, in early 2011, tragedy struck the town. Justin Patterson, an unarmed 22-year-old African-American man, was shot and killed by a 62-year-old white man, Norman Neesmith. Laub, who had photographed and befriended Patterson’s friends and family during her many trips to Montgomery County, was disturbed by the entrenched racism and discrimination dividing the community. She recognized that a larger story needed to be told.
Her project, which began as an exploration of segregated high school rituals, evolved into an urgent mandate to confront national realities. Relying on her incisive and empathic eye as a photographer, she explored the history of Montgomery County, recording the stories and lives of its youth.
What emerged over the next decade—during which time the country witnessed the rise of citizen journalism and a conflagration of racially motivated violence, re-elected its first African-American president, and experienced the formation of the Black Lives Matter movement—was a complex story about adolescence, race, the legacy of slavery and the deep roots of segregation in the American South.
America has not dealt with the dark stain of slavery
“America has not sufficiently dealt with the dark stain of oppression and slavery that marks our history,” Laub says, “and it is one of the reasons that segregated proms and racially charged killings have continued in the 21st century.” While truth and reconciliation commissions have been established throughout the world to grapple with painful histories and to address ethnic and racial atrocities, Laub points out that it was only this year that a substantial memorial was opened to reckon with the lynching of thousands of black Americans, the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama.
Nonetheless, she found among the students of Montgomery County “an American spirit of challenging inequality”, she says. “They made sacrifices in speaking out and acting courageously. There was a desire to agitate for a better life, for personal freedom. This inextinguishable light is what gave me hope.”
Then and Now: the People Behind the Pictures
Southern Rites is a specific story about young people in the 21st century from the American South, but it poses a universal question about human experience: can a new generation liberate itself from a harrowing and traumatic past to create a different future? In the exhibition “Southern Rites” (which is also the title of a HBO documentary with Laub), the artist deploys her skills as a penetrating storyteller and visual activist to examine the realities of racism, raising questions that are both agonizing and essential to understanding our American consciousness. Through her images, and the voices of her subjects, we encounter that which we do not want to witness, but what is vital for us to see.
A generation of African-American young adults has come of age during Barack Obama’s historic presidency, yet the scars of slavery and the legacy of segregation and race-based violence continue to limit the opportunities and hopes of many African-American youth in the American South and throughout this country. As one of Montgomery County’s young, African-American residents wryly observed in response to Donald Trump’s campaign and presidency, which has brought deeply entrenched racist ideologies to the surface: “Now the rest of the country is finally seeing what we’ve been dealing with forever.”
Now the rest of the country is finally seeing what we’ve been dealing with forever
As American political scientist Naomi Murakawa observed, “If the problem of the 20th century was, in W.E.B. Du Bois’s famous words, ‘the problem of the color line’, then the problem of the 21st century is the problem of colorblindness, the refusal to acknowledge the causes and consequences of enduring racial stratification.”
In contemplating profound moral questions through a specific narrative lens, Laub’s Southern Rites asks us to explore the complexity and pain of inequalities that are still with us today, while demonstrating the power of photography to affect social change. In the image gallery, you can read quotes from the photograph’s subjects which reflect the passing of time with all that it brings: hope, despair, death and new life. Scroll down or click the image gallery above for more.
The images in this article will appear in the traveling exhibition, “Southern Rites“, curated by Maya Benton, which the International Center of Photography will tour nationally beginning in fall 2018.
Then and Now: the People Behind the Pictures
It’s stupid that people are getting hysterical over the Confederate flag
Shelby, age 16, 2008
“If I want to show the rebel flag, I’m going to, because that’s my heritage. All these people who run around screaming that the Confederate flag is racist, they’re not stupid, they’re ignorant. Because ignorance is the absence of really knowing what happened. I am not going to hide it from nobody.”
Shelby, age 24, 2016
“The crazy guy who killed people in South Carolina was insane, not racist. People keep saying that because he posted the Confederate flag on Facebook the shooting was a racist act. That’s so ignorant of them. It’s stupid that people are getting hysterical over the Confederate flag. I will continue to wear my clothes with it. To me it symbolizes my Southern heritage. The Civil War was about much more than slavery.”Back to Image Gallery
Racism still exists here, it’s just that people are less open about it
Bubba, age 15, 2002
“I feel bad that Julie can’t tell her parents about us, since we’ve been together for a couple years. I know she’s not embarrassed; it’s just hard for people of that generation to be okay with mixed couples here. Julie always comes to my place and is welcome on this side of the tracks. She’s just cool, not a color.”
Julie, age 17, 2005
“Bubba was my first love. We dated from eighth grade until my junior year in high school. Some friends started to tell me they couldn’t hang out with me anymore. That hurt, because they were my friends since kindergarten. I didn’t think they were bad people, just scared.”
Bubba, age 29, 2016
“Things in Montgomery County have gotten a little better. When I dated Julie in high school, the principal got involved [by repeatedly warning Julie’s parents that we should not be dating], and I don’t think that would happen today. These days I see a lot of mixed couples walking down the street who don’t seem scared. When we dated we were scared. I still talk to Julie every week. We’ve stayed real tight over the years.”
Julie, age 28, 2016
“Living in Atlanta has been so much easier for me. I never feel uncomfortable when my [African American] boyfriend Travis and I are in public—no glaring, no stares, no eye rolling. But I know racism still exists here, it’s just that people are less open about it. I am a nurse, and I’ve been at work with people who don’t know me that well, they just see an educated professional—and they slip in racist comments without realizing that it’s very offensive to me. It doesn’t cross their minds that I wouldn’t naturally agree with them since I am white.”Back to Image Gallery
It’s just what we know and what our parents have done for so many years. It’s not about being racist
Harley, age 17, 2009
“It’s always been segregated. There’s always been two separate proms. It doesn’t seem like a big deal around here. It’s just what we know and what our parents have done for so many years. It’s not about being racist. We’re in the same classes; we eat lunch together and sit at the same tables. It’s not about what color you are. It’s about your attitude, how you present yourself, and how you take care of yourself. It’s not about if you are black or white.”
Anita (Harley’s mother), 2009
“This community and this school system is fine how it is. This is the way they have done it ever since there was a prom. So it’s worked for them this way. Why try and fix something that’s not broken? The kids are perfectly fine with it. Every year, when it comes to planning for the prom, you have the white kids that start planning for their prom and you have the black kids that start planning theirs. It’s fine having things the way it’s been done for however long. Leave it alone. We don’t want to change it.”Back to Image Gallery
Just a year or two ago we wouldn’t even be able to dance together
Kayla (prom princess), age 17, 2011
“I guess it seems behind that we just integrated our proms this year. But it’s really common around here. All the schools in the surrounding counties just integrated their proms the past couple years, too. It didn’t seem racist because we really are a tight community. Quanti has been my close friend since kindergarten. It is great that we can all have this night together now.”
Quanti (prom prince), age 16, 2011
“Around here, prom is the biggest event we have. People plan all year for this night. It was real cool that all our classmates actually voted for me and Kayla to be crowned [junior prom prince and princess]. I was excited and surprised. Just a year or two ago we wouldn’t even be able to dance together. But I was real nervous ‘cause we had to have our dance alone, and everyone was there—all the parents, who were chaperones, including Kayla’s mom. And they were all watching us dance. I know her mom likes me, but I don’t think she’d be happy if we dated. Most of the white girls need to sneak around if they want to be with a black boy.”
Quanti, age 21, 2016
“When I left the military and moved back to Mount Vernon I realized a lot of things, like when Obama was inaugurated. I was so excited, but I remember the teachers not letting us watch it in class because they said it was too disruptive. A lot of the black kids at school were angry, so they left to watch it at home, but there were texts going around that it was ‘the iniggeration.’”Back to Image Gallery
If my friends and I didn’t speak out, there’s a good chance the proms would still be segregated
Angel, age 17, 2009
“Last night we went to see all our friends at the senior walk, and after the father-daughter dance all the black kids were asked to leave. Yeah, that was upsetting. I am worried to talk about it because I don’t want to jeopardize my future here. We moved here because my dad got the assistant principal job at the middle school. He was very active in the NAACP [National Association for the Advancement of Colored People] chapter here, but then he got discouraged. I think his job depended on him keeping quiet. I’ve heard it being said that it’s a white person’s game, and you just have to learn to play it.”
Angel, age 24, 2016
“This community has recently come together, and it seems like, however small, the changes are happening. I am a seventh-grade teacher and also a pre-med student by night, really trying to get the most out of this life. I feel proud that one day I can tell my children that I helped make a change by using my voice. If my friends and I didn’t speak out, there’s a good chance the proms would still be segregated.”Back to Image Gallery
Being black and gay is like two strikes against you around here
Niesha (prom queen), age 17, 2009
“I believe we have a long way to go with racism here. It’s better than when my momma was a kid, but we’re still having separate proms, aren’t we? We’ve grown up together, and now we can’t even spend this last night as a class before we graduate. I am graduating at the top of my class. I got a scholarship to the private college here, but I think I’d feel strange being one of the only black girls there. So I decided to go to the military instead.”
Khiry (prom king), age 18, 2009
“Last night some of my best friends had their white prom, and I was kind of hurt that I couldn’t be with them and dance with them. That’s just the way things are around here. I hope when I’m a parent we’ll have one prom, black and white, together.”
Khiry, age 25, 2016
“Right after graduation I came out to my family and friends. I was too scared to come out in high school. Being black and gay is like two strikes against you around here. I moved away and now live with my boyfriend in Statesboro, Georgia. My sister is still in high school and she told me something sad. Her best friend’s mom—who is white—won’t let her sleep over at our house.”Back to Image Gallery
We pay the same taxes as the white people in Montgomery County, but they seem to get all the nice parks
Niesha, age 19, 2011
“It feels like way more than two years since I was prom queen. So much has happened. I was discharged from the military when I found out I was pregnant with Zoey. The proms finally integrated. But it’s like we take one step forward and two steps back.”
Niesha, age 24, 2016
“I voted for the current mayor because he promised he would help build parks for the kids on this side of town. We pay the same taxes as the white people in Montgomery County, but they seem to get all the nice parks. I have nowhere close to my house to take my kids to play. I wish I could say things are changing here, but it’s hard when the same people are controlling the system.”Back to Image Gallery
At my court date I had a choice: I could either walk with this sign or go to jail
Lourinza (left), May 2013
“I was urinating outside of a nightclub and I got caught. At my court date I had a choice: I could either walk with this sign or go to jail. It’s humiliating, but better than being behind bars. We have to walk up and down the street for eight hours every day this week. People drive by, people we know. I think my store manager just drove by, but I didn’t look up.”Back to Image Gallery
The next thing I know he pulled my brother and me out of the room with a gun pointing at us
Sha’von (Justin Patterson’s brother), age 18, 2011
“My brother Justin was my best friend. He was my role model. I looked up to him. It’s hard for me to talk about that night. My brother was talking to this girl, Danielle, on Facebook that he knew. She and her friend invited us over to her house. She told us to park across the street at the onion field so her daddy [Norman Neesmith] wouldn’t hear the car. We were just hanging out. Norman woke up, and the next thing I know he pulled my brother and me out of the room with a gun pointing at us. He told us to sit on the couch and asked our names. I looked at my brother. We were both scared and thought we had no choice but to run. Norman came chasing after us with the gun. I was trying to unlock the door and my brother tried to push him down so we could get away. When I finally got the door open, I heard two shots, and Justin screamed that he’d been shot. We both ran as fast as we could. Norman kept firing behind us. We didn’t get far before Justin collapsed in the field, and he told me he didn’t think he’d make it.”Back to Image Gallery