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Turmoil Of '63 Shut Down Proms; Former Students Dance Again


There were countless sacrifices made during the Civil Rights movement, in Birmingham, Ala. And for African-American students graduating high school during a particularly turbulent year, one of those sacrifices was their prom. But this past Friday, hundreds of members of the Class of 1963 got to have their night, 50 years later. From Birmingham, Gigi Douban has the story.

GIGI DOUBAN, BYLINE: They arrived at the Boutwell Auditorium in downtown Birmingham, in stretch limos. Some came from Atlanta and Detroit.

KEVIN ARRINGTON: Good evening.


ARRINGTON: 1963, majorette.

DOUBAN: The women wore evening gowns, lots of sequins and satin, high heels and dazzling embroidery. The men wore suits and tuxes. This was prom night. And for a few hundred Birmingham graduates of the Class of 1963, it came 50 years late. Ethel Arms was there in a black, strapless gown, with a date.


ETHEL ARMS: I'm with my husband of 49 years. We were high school sweethearts.

DOUBAN: The couple's prom, like others at black schools across the city, was canceled. School officials said it was dangerous; there was too much going on in the city, at the time. Thousands of black students were heartbroken.

ETHEL ARMS: We were all upset, but it had to be done.

DOUBAN: Arms' husband, Eugene. said in those weeks before and after the prom, he saw houses set on fire, churches bombed. And that same April prom was scheduled in city schools, Martin Luther King Jr. was arrested there. This night, Eugene's wife, Ethel, got to wear two corsages.

And you brought a corsage?

EUGENE ARMS: I did, and she upstaged me. She has one already. (Laughing)

ETHEL ARMS: I can have two. I had no idea he was going to honor me with a double rose.

DOUBAN: Inside the auditorium, there was food, dancing, and a little reflection on what the night meant. Ernestine Thomas, a 1963 graduate of Parker High, organized the event. She told guests that finally having a prom was a dream come true.

ERNESTINE THOMAS: Tonight is the time to heal some of the wounds that we have left from 1963, and to make new memories.

DOUBAN: Frances Faulks, another Parker High grad, says she was set on going to prom senior year. She knew what she was wearing.

FRANCES FAULKS: It was a white dress with plenty ruffles. You know, it was strapless and all, and I was just excited about that.

DOUBAN: There was no prom. And a few weeks later, more than a thousand students in Birmingham skipped school for the children's march protesting segregation.

FAULKS: And I didn't get to go in the march because my mother was telling me that you were going to have to stay at home so that you won't jeopardize my job.

DOUBAN: Her mother was a teacher, and she was afraid her job would be on the line if anyone found out. Hundreds of students were arrested during that protest. One of them was Arthur Jean Moore. She says back then, missing prom was the least of her concerns. She almost didn't graduate because she was expelled after being arrested at the protest.

ARTHUR JEAN MOORE: I was in jail a week, school a week, expelled a week; went back the next week and graduated.

DOUBAN: Moore says she has no regrets. It was all well worth it.


DOUBAN: On this night, it was time to celebrate. And a few hours later, dozens of couples did exactly that with a slow dance that was long overdue.

For NPR News, I'm Gigi Douban in Birmingham, Ala.


MARTIN: You're listening to NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Gigi Douban