Wilcox County, Georgia (CNN) -- It's a springtime tradition in this stretch of the magnolia midlands for crowds to gather at high school students' proms. They'll cheer for teens in tuxedos and gowns while an announcer reads what the students will do once they leave this pecan grove skyline.
Earlier this month, Wilcox County High School senior Mareshia Rucker rode to a historic theater in the nearby town of Fitzgerald to see her own classmates' prom celebration. She never left the car, even to catch up with her friends. She'd recently helped to invite the critical gaze of the world to her county; few would be happy to see her there, she said. Besides, she's black and wasn't invited to this prom reserved for white students anyway.
For as long as most remember, Wilcox County High School hasn't sponsored a prom for its 400 students. Instead, parents and their children organize their own private, off-site parties, known casually as white prom and black prom -- a vestige of racial segregation that still lives on.
"When people say that seeing is believing, it truly is," Mareshia says a few days later from the comfortable bustle of her family's kitchen, central command for the three generations that share it.
"Just talking about it, it didn't hurt my feelings. I didn't care," she says. "When I saw it, I felt really crappy. I didn't understand what was so different about me and them."
She apologizes as her eyes grow shiny and tears dribble down her face. Toni Rucker swoops in to fold her arms around her oldest daughter.
"What is the difference," she murmurs, Mareshia's head resting on her chest. "There is no difference."
Mareshia and her friends bucked 40 years of local customs this month by organizing their own integrated prom, a formal dance open to Wilcox County's white, black, Latino and Asian high school students. Organizers, both black and white, said they lost friends in the process -- a grim experience in the waning weeks of the school year. It's been hard on the rest of their hometown, too.
When the story erupted on TV and social media, Wilcox County became a symbol of race relations stuck in the past. People around the world heard about the sneers from some classmates, the silence from some adults, the school board that says it supports them but didn't sponsor its own prom. Thousands lashed out at the old tradition or offered up kind words, cash, dresses, a DJ. Stunned, they wanted to know, could this be true? In 2013?
Segregated proms are a longstanding reality in this farming community 160 miles south of Atlanta, and until recently, at several schools nearby. Some in Wilcox County say it's just an old habit that's hard to break. A few argue the proms are private because of cost and liability or because parents won't cede control. They say people "self-segregate," and kids can't agree on country or hip-hop, "white music" or "black music."
Some say some preachers and some parents implicitly encourage segregation, but there's no point to arguing: People are entitled to their opinions, even if they're racist.
Plenty here shrug off the debate entirely and say a high school dance is nothing to make a fuss about.
Mareshia is 17, a good student, a cheerleader who's active in the Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps. She knew long ago that proms were segregated, but she didn't think much about it till last year, when she and three friends first realized they'd be split up.
"How do you want your last moments of high school to be," Mareshia asked herself then. "What do you want your memories to encompass?"
More than 40 years after these South Georgia schools desegregated, students are still separated on what they see as the brightest nights of their lives. Some from all the county's small towns -- Abbeville, Pineview, Pitts, Rochelle -- say nobody ever questioned the segregation till this year. But keep asking, and high school graduates will say they wondered about it, questioned it or even asked to make a change. Until this year, the plans always fell through.
"We were different because we always have been together throughout school," Mareshia said. "We've cheered together at football games. We've gone to each other's houses and spent the night...There was no need in us having two separate [proms.]"
High school is brief, though, and memories are short. Decades earlier, Wilcox County alumni remembered, there was no prom at all.
'A prom I never had'
In 1970, Barbara King's mom made a trip to the city for a ruffled peach gown for her daughter's junior prom, a formal dance in the school gym. King attended Excelsior, a school for all of Wilcox County's black students. White students went to a school down the road in Rochelle, the county's largest city.
The Supreme Court's Brown v. Board of Education decision had struck down the legal basis for "separate but equal" schools in 1954, but state politics had stalled integration so long, King never thought it would happen. Excelsior had loving teachers, a new football team, a competitive a cappella choir and, naturally, its own prom.
But before school let out for the summer, they learned Excelsior would close. The black students would integrate into the all-white Wilcox County schools. They cried, she says, out of sadness and fear.
"The black kids, we'd heard horror stories about the white school and the white kids," she says. "We did not want to go."
That fall, tension between black and white students sizzled in the hallways, King says. In that volatile atmosphere, students learned there would be no homecoming dance. Before long, they understood there would be no prom either.
It was a blow to everyone, King says. She doesn't remember any proms or private, formal parties happening -- it never occurred to them to plan a dance outside the gym. Integration was painful, but it would get easier.
"I always felt that we were robbed," says King, who now lives in Arizona. "It was just devastating."
She didn't realize that tumultuous year might have been the kernel of the county's long tradition of segregated proms. She graduated, left Wilcox County and assumed the big dances were revived a few years later.
King only learned the proms remained segregated when her niece, a Wilcox County student, told her about the plan for an integrated prom. Forty years after the struggle to integrate schools, she was shocked to realize kids still fought to integrate their social lives. On the Excelsior Facebook page, which she runs from her home in Arizona, she posted dozens of news stories about the integrated prom and put out calls to donate money.
"I think, deep down, it was my way of having a prom I never had," she says.
When she thinks back to 1971 now, she believes they could've had a nice prom if they'd been given the chance. It might have meant white students on one side of the gym and black students on another, but they would have danced.
Why, she wonders, should today's students fight the same ugly battles they did? Maybe, it's just been too long to remember.
"If there's something that you're born into," she says, "you think it's normal."
'Picking up the pieces'
"Normal" for Rochelle is the quiet strip of hair salons and flower shops. Its murals in blue and gold, the colors for the Wilcox County High School Patriots. It's generations that stick close to home, even when jobs are sparse.
The unemployment rate is 12.3%, far higher than the nation's 7.6%, and the median income is $31,712. Workers farm, process peanuts, teach kids at school or cook for them in the cafeteria. Some of the county's 9,000 residents commute about 20 miles to Cordele or even 45 miles to Tifton just to keep a paycheck coming.
People here will talk about jobs and the economy -- they know that's a problem. Race? Not so much.
"Nobody wants to be called a racist," says lifelong Wilcox County resident Melissa Davis, 39.
She and her husband run Skin Deep Tattoos and Piercings in Rochelle. Christian imagery is popular among their clients -- Jesus' face, crosses -- and American Indian symbols.
The county is about 62% white, 35% black, 3% Latino. On the 2010 Census, Asians and American Indians hardly register. Diverse customers come to every shop in Rochelle, Davis says, but if the town has a reputation for racism, how would that hurt business?
After all the coverage about the prom, it stings to overhear insults at the store, or read them online and know who they're about. Outsiders don't see how people rally in hard times, she said. Her neighbors give generously and buy endless plates of barbecue and beans to support each other's causes.
Personally, she supports an integrated prom. She had a great time at her own segregated prom about 20 years ago, but it didn't make much sense to her then, she said. Someday, she hopes her 15-year-old son attends a school-sponsored prom that's open to everybody. But she can understand why so few people want to talk about it.
"These young girls, I applaud them in one sense because they were willing to do something, but then I look at them and think to myself, there is such a better way of doing this than going to the media," Davis says. "They're going to graduate. They're going to be leaving this little town...we're not. We're going to be sitting here picking up the pieces for years."
Harriet Hollis, the racial healing coordinator for the nonprofit Southwest Georgia Project for Community Education, says media attention was necessary to start the conversation about the prom, and disparities in schools and the workforce.
"I can't go in talking about 'racial healing,'" Hollis says. "People won't call me back."
She helped the teens coordinate the integrated prom and hates that people feel they were portrayed incorrectly. But it's difficult to raise awareness when people are afraid to lose customers, offend neighbors or be ostracized at church. Talking about race in a small town is a quick way to risk everything.
"You realize it takes courage to do this kind of stuff," she remembers telling the teens planning the integrated prom. "You're going to get pushback. You're going to get teachers who are not going to be happy, and classmates who don't want you to do it."
They told her, "'This can happen. We can do this.'"
'It could have been us'
Just last spring, Ashley Saylor didn't even try to buy a prom ticket. She approached the committee planning the white prom with a question: "Are you going to let us go together?"
Ashley and her boyfriend, Antonio Gibson, were seniors. As freshmen, they sat across from each other in JROTC. They talked, texted and dated ever since.
Ashley is white; Antonio is black. They hid their relationship at first. Ashley's mom "wasn't raised that way," and even strangers shot nasty looks. But people grew to love them as a couple, including their parents, teachers and friends.
They'd gone together to the school's annual JROTC ball for years; it has always been integrated. She swears she remembers every second of their first dance -- her turquoise dress with the low back and not-too-high slit, his dress green uniform, the words to the GinuWine song, "Differences."
My whole life has changed
Since you came in, I knew back then
You were that special one
I'm so in love, so deep in love
With their years in high school ending and Antonio heading to basic training, she wanted another dance. They weren't the first ones to float the idea of an integrated prom, she said, so she posed the question to the white students.
"I was told that I should just bring someone else," Ashley says. "Bring someone who is white."
Ashley cried in her mom's arms. It stressed her relationship with Antonio. So many things were changing; they couldn't stomach a fight with 40-year-old prom rituals, or the people who kept them going.
"It's hard to grow up in that town and not be racist," she says.
Her name is Ashley Gibson now. She and Antonio married, and have a daughter, 5-month-old Riley Jean. They live near San Diego, where Antonio is stationed with the Navy.
She still keeps their last JROTC ball photo on their dresser. When she heard about Wilcox County's new integrated prom, she wished she'd fought harder for it -- for another chance to mark the end of high school, to dress up with her oldest friends, to dance with the man she'd marry.
It might have been different if she'd known that one year later some of her old Wilcox County classmates would pull it off.
"It could've been us. We could've done it," Ashley said. "It was all about taking the first step."
'The timing was just right'
Why this year? How could they carry out an integrated prom now, but not 1971, 2012, or the decades between?
Part of it might be Facebook, students suggested. They're all friends, and that's where evidence of limousine rides and slow dances tick across the screen.
Some said it was the outside help, the media attention, the voice of the NAACP. The neighbors who paid for car washes, doughnuts of barbecue plates were key, the students agree. So, too, were the parents.
"When you have people in your county stand with you...it makes everything easier," said Brandon Davis, a white Wilcox County senior who helped to plan the integrated prom. "When my parents told me, 'We will stand beside you and support you,' that was just amazing."
Barbara King, who graduated with the first integrated class, says she could already see some change in Wilcox County when she returned for a reunion last year. Black and white people sat together in the stands during the Patriots' homecoming football game. Some white classmates -- the same folks she hardly spoke to in high school -- came to the class celebration.
Ashley Gibson said she and Antonio could move back someday. She loves how, in the last couple years, people stopped her on the street or in the bank just to ask about her husband and baby.
"For people who don't live in a situation like this, it's so normal. Where we came from, that's a huge deal," she says. "Regardless of what happened, and what we've been through, and how much it forced us to grow, I love my town."
By this time next year, prom in Wilcox County could be entirely different. The high school's leadership will consider hosting a prom in 2014, Superintendent Steve Smith says. It might not eliminate private, segregated proms, but if it happens, it could promise a dance open to everybody.
"Maybe the timing was just right," Smith says. "I'm proud of 'em. It's a shame, I guess, that it takes four teenage girls to open our eyes."
On Saturday night, at the community clubhouse in Cordele, a finger-food dinner of chicken wings, red velvet cupcakes and peach lemonade awaited. A DJ drove 14 hours from Houston with strobe lights and speakers to blare Flo Rida, Justin Timberlake and Rihanna. A basket of feathered masks -- a complement to their theme, "Masquerade Ball in Paris" -- waited by the door.
About 100 people came to the integrated prom, most of them from Wilcox County. Even more came for that other old tradition -- watching. There were fathers, grandmothers, curious onlookers, reporters, a gaggle of students from Atlanta, a local NAACP rep and Shirley Sherrod, the former U.S. Department of Agriculture official in Georgia who was smeared by a misleading video that showed her discussing race.
Students wobbled in rhinestone-studded heels, traded tuxes for T-shirts, stole away to dark corners, shared a toast of sparkling grape juice, crowned a king and queen, Harlem shook, cha-cha slid.
In the last minutes of the prom, a few soft piano chords melted out of the speakers -- the slowest song of the night so far. Girls clasped their hands around their date's necks. A few friends made sloppy waltzes around the dance floor.
In one corner, a pair swayed back and forth, at first just holding hands. Then two more joined in, then a few more and more still. The circle unfurled, and grew hand by hand to include almost every person in the room.
It seemed like what Mareshia hoped for when they started: "If we're all together and we love each other the way we say we do, then there are no issues," she said. "This is something that should have happened a long time ago."