Mount Vernon is the ideal American small town. Set amidst fields of sweet Vidalia onion farms in Montgomery County, Georgia, it’s a place where families can trace their roots back many generations. People are friendly, polite, proud of their history, and protective of their neighbors. But it’s also a town held hostage by its own past, as photographer Gillian Laub discovered in 2002, when she learned that the area’s high school proms and homecoming parties were still racially segregated.
For more than a decade, Laub has explored the history of Montgomery County and documented the lives of its residents, especially its youth, grappling with what appeared to be a toxic anachronism. She continued to return even in the face of growing—and eventually violent—resistance on the part of some in the community. In 2009, Laub’s photographs of the segregated proms were published in The New York Times Magazine. The following year, largely as a result, the proms were finally integrated and, for a moment, progress seemed underway. And it was the power of the photographic image - not politics or anger - that acted as the primary catalyst.
Then, in early 2011, tragedy struck: Justin Patterson, a twenty-two-year-old black man, was shot and killed by a sixty-two-year-old white man. At first, the murder seemed to confirm every assumption about the entrenched prejudice that this community was struggling to shake. Except, as with every human story, the truth was more layered than a quick headline could telegraph. What began as an exploration of segregated proms became something much more tragic, and complex.
There is a thin line between the ties that bind and the ties that free, between the inheritances that haunt and those that provide comfort. This is a story about young people today living in the American South, and it asks whether a new generation can finally liberate themselves from an uncomfortable past and make a different future.