Story by Ed Berthiaume / Communications
Paul Saltzman, the director of Prom Night in Mississippi, a 2008 documentary about racism and race relations in a small town in Mississippi, will visit Lawrence University next week for a showing and discussion of the film.
The documentary, created in partnership with Oscar-winning actor Morgan Freeman, will be shown at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 25, in the Warch Campus Center Cinema, followed by a discussion with Saltzman.
Prom Night in Mississippi was made more than 40 years after Saltzman had participated in voter registration work with the SNCC (Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee) during the summer of 1965, witnessing the segregation of the south up close and personal. He said he returned to Mississippi in 2007 to see how — or if — race relations had progressed.
That led to a meeting with Freeman, who had returned to live near his childhood home in Charleston, Mississippi, population 2,000. Morgan would tell Saltzman a seemingly improbable story. The high school in Charleston, in 2007, still held two proms — one for white students, one for black students.
A decade earlier, Freeman had offered to pay all costs if the school would unite the two proms, open to all students. The school turned him down.
When they met, Saltzman asked Freeman if he’d be interested in revisiting that offer for the 2008 prom. Saltzman would come along with his camera to document the process from start to finish.
Freeman said yes, leading to the making of Prom Night in Mississippi.
The documentary weaves together student-made videos, interviews, and intimate moments with students, school officials, parents, and Freeman.
“I live here,” Freeman tells a group of seniors at the school. “I think it 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.”
Most students at the school seem to approve of the integrated prom, but a group of white parents move ahead to plan their own whites-only prom. They refuse to be interviewed for Saltzman’s film.
The integrated prom is held that spring, and it is well received, marking what Saltzman called a turning point for the town.
“Many of the senior students, black and white, impressed me with their openness and awareness,” Saltzman said at the time. “Their courage to attend their first mixed prom and to share their feelings about race gives me hope that we are indeed heading in the right direction.”
Using this film as a catalyst, Saltzman and fellow producer Patricia Aquino later created Moving Beyond Prejudice, a nonprofit that works with young people and their communities to shine a light on prejudice and promote inclusion.
The Feb. 25 showing in the Warch Cinema is free of charge. A discussion will follow. The program is in conjunction with Black History Month and is co-sponsored by Lawrence’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion and the Diversity and Intercultural Center.
Bonus: While on campus next week, Saltzman also will speak about another passion — the Beatles. He’s published two books on the band, The Beatles in Rishikesh and The Beatles in India. His talk at 11:10 a.m. Feb. 24 in Harper Hall is titled, The Beatles in India and How I Met the Beatles.
Ed Berthiaume is director of public information at Lawrence University. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org