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Smearing the South: Group Attacks Georgia Governor for 'Segregated Proms'

Much money can be made and political power gained by presenting the South as a bastion of pre-Civil Rights Jim Crow. This is what the SPLC (Southern Poverty Law Center), a non-profit with an unsavory past and dubious finances, does. As Charlotte Allen pointed out recently in the Weekly Standard, they bank on rich, elderly Northeastern donors who still think of the South as the place of segregated drinking fountains.

The reality is far different. Fulton County, which seats Atlanta, has a work force that is 83 percent black. The county’s racial makeup is 48 percent white and 45 percent black. But those attempting to change this politically red state into blue look for white “racism” under every rock and in every Republican heart (especially those of rural Georgia residents).

This is evidently the strategy of a new group called Better Georgia, an affiliate of ProgressNow. One of their recent actions was a scolding of Governor Nathan Deal for not making enough executive appointments of color. However, at Georgia Unfiltered, Andre Walker looked at the diversity of Better Georgia itself. He wrote that while the group lectured in its email -- “Tell Gov. Deal that we want executive appointments to reflect what Georgia really looks like -- appointments that are diverse and bring together people of all backgrounds, ethnicities and genders" -- it turns out that Better Georgia’s executive director, political director, and officers are all white.

Better Georgia went after Wilcox County High School’s private “proms,” which have reportedly been segregated. They publicly pressured the governor to make a statement on the issue. Their goal is stated on their web page:

We take important issues like civil rights and equality and we package them in a way that are (sic) easy to digest on Facebook, Twitter and email. We translate important progressive values into narratives that generate headlines and increased click-through rates.

On the prom story, the liberal press complied: the news about “institutionalized segregation” was covered in the UK by the Daily Mail, and predictably the New York Times bit, running several articles on the issue.

This was not a new topic for the NYT: In 2009, they ran an article titled “A Prom Divided” about the supposedly segregated prom at Montgomery County High School. However, Principal Henry Walding told me that he had no knowledge about a segregated prom, but that the school sponsored its first prom this year. He called it “highly successful.”

CNN inadvertently revealed that the Wilcox prom was much ado about nothing. Wilcox County High School itself did not sponsor the proms.

An NBC news report mentioned that the prom went off without a hitch, although they did remind readers of the narrative: “Almost half a century after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawed racial discrimination in schools and other public places … ”. An April 26 Atlanta Journal-Constitution article noted: “The idea of the integrated prom was born out of a racial healing project spearheaded by Harriet Hollis, a coordinator with the Southwest Georgia Project for Community Education.” However, an internet search reveals only a Facebook page for the non-profit.

It turns out the kids were able to have their own prom with only a little bit of help from the grown-ups, including donations, some brought in by Wilcox High alum Melvin Everson, a former Republican state representative. Peach Pundit reported that Everson, appointed by Governor Deal as executive director of the Georgia Commission on Equal Opportunity, had called for local funding of the prom. The student group announced on Facebook that it had met its goal by April 5.

The success of the prom seems to be an argument for keeping government out of such affairs. Yet liberal media continued to present the situation as evidence of racism long after the money had been raised. ABC News announced: “Georgia Teens Fed Up With Segregated Proms.” Atlanta Journal-Constitution education writer Maureen Downey called them “apartheid proms” as she cited Better Georgia -- though noting that at Turner County High School, both white and black students had  segregated themselves at their private "proms".

At Democracy Now! on April 26, Amy Goodman introduced the story with a reference to students “making history … nearly sixty years after Brown v. Board of Education.” One of the Little Rock Nine, Carlotta Walls LaNier, was brought on to revisit 1957.

Goodman posed a question to Wilcox high school student Brandon Davis in order to flog Governor Deal:

Your governor, the Georgia governor, Republican Nathan Deal, was asked by a group called Better Georgia to publicly support your integrated prom, as some Republican and Democratic state officials have already done. Governor Deal’s spokesman, Brian Robinson, responded by attacking the group rather than addressing the question. He wrote, quote: "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."

The statement forced Governor Deal to clarify his position. He later told a reporter at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, quote: "I believe that anything that’s associated with a school should not have the distinction or discrimination made based on race or gender or any other separation, but it appears to me that the parents and students have worked that out on their own, as they should."

The founder of Better Georgia, Bryan Long, admits that the students themselves -- without any help from school or government officials (other than voluntary donations) -- put on the prom this year.

There has been no change in school policy; the high school still does not sponsor the prom.

Long says that he found out about the issue about two months before the April 27 prom through a news story. Their efforts began on April 10, however -- five days after the money was raised. He says his organization never contacted the students, but that Better Georgia wanted to make sure that elected officials knew about the issue.

When I asked him what had changed between this year and last, he said that it was a matter of four teenagers displaying “courageous leadership skills” and “taking a stand.”

No one gave Everson, working in the governor’s office, credit. Instead, they used a non-issue to tar the governor and all Republicans in Georgia.

The negative publicity about Governor Deal did raise traffic to Better Georgia’s website, according to Long. He estimates that their email subscriber list is up to 75,000. He says the site had “record traffic numbers in the days leading up to the prom.”

On their website, Better Georgia says they are “thrilled” by a glowing Atlanta Journal-Constitution profile that admits they were “mining social media” to find gaffes to pounce on. One minor point: Better Georgia wants to clarify the reporter’s conclusion that Long sees a “coming Democratic tide.” “Better Georgia is strictly nonpartisan” and hoping for a “progressive tide in Georgia,” wrote Bryan Long.

Yet, a solicitation email sent on April 5, 2013, announced: “You have the power to change Georgia politics.” It featured a video of MSNBC host Rachel Maddow at Atlanta’s Symphony Hall, with a quotation from her: “I think there’s a future for liberal politicians, for progressive politicians, in your state.”

Better Georgia boasts on its website about exposing politicians, like (Republican) Representative Terry England’s “shockingly insensitive comments about pregnant women,” turning (Republican) Senator Bill Jackson’s speech about gun violence into a “national embarrassment,” and “taking down” (Republican) Senator Majority Leader Chip Rogers.

This won’t be the first time Democratic operatives have exploited race issues and children for gain. In the 1960s radicals recruited in high schools, and segregationist Democratic politicians suddenly did an about-face and supported civil rights legislation.

Today, they have more than the nightly news with reporters like Bill Moyers. They can add “social media” to their 50 years of experience in stirring up racial issues. Better Georgia appears to be a bunch of white guys in a high-rent area of Atlanta (Midtown) generating stories of racial tension for their own benefit. If they really cared about the kids, they would have donated money and done honest work.