As they plan their very first integrated prom in the history of their rural Georgia County, the students of Wilcox County High School exemplify broad moral vision, strong leadership and real courage. The highest elected official of our great state, Gov. Nathan Deal, should follow their lead and finally offer a clear statement of support in word and deed for their initiative. So far, he has not.
When asked several weeks ago whether he would join other elected officials in the state who have voiced their support for an integrated prom, Deal made the questioner, rather than the obvious issue, the issue. Saying the governor had no comment, his spokesman lashed out, focusing more on politics than principle: “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.”
Then, late last week, Deal released a statement conceding the wrongheadedness of school-related events “based on race or gender or any other separation,” but seemed to want to have it both ways politically as he went on to say, “I think that people understand that some of these are just local issues and private issues, and not something that the state government needs to have its finger involved in.”
So, when dismissing the issue altogether as one stirred up by what defenders of segregation used to call “outside agitators” did not fly, the governor sought to confine it as a “local,” perhaps even a “private,” issue which, despite decades of evidence to the contrary, would surely be resolved if government and its duly elected leadership stayed out of it.
Deal needs to stop the unhelpful and unnecessary political dance and challenge outright rather than run cowardly away from the lingering ghosts of the South’s ugly racial past. Unlike many issues that confront us today, this one is very clear. Segregation is wrong, and proms masquerading as “private parties” should be a thing of the past.
Not long ago, I hosted Gov. Deal at Ebenezer Baptist Church as he stood in our sanctuary, signing into law a state commission charged with organizing the ways in which we would honor Ebenezer’s famous pastor and Georgia’s greatest son, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The signer of this historic legislation should ask himself, “What would Dr. King do?” King said that “silence is betrayal” and, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
Does Gov. Deal want to stand in the moral legacy of King, or the Southern governors whom King had to confront? As the state’s leader, Deal should use his influence to champion the moral message of the children of Wilcox County as they teach a good lesson on the values of equality and inclusion. To do less provides a poor lesson for the rest of Georgia’s schoolchildren and casts a poor shadow over the state’s national and international image, suggesting that it has actually not learned much nor launched very far from its segregationist past.
The Rev. Raphael Warnock is senior pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta.