"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."