Gillian Laub set out to document a Georgia town's first integrated prom and found a much darker story

By Tiare Dunlap
Updated May 18, 2015 06:20 PM
Gillian Laub/HBO

Photographer Gillian Laub made waves in a small Georgia county in 2009 when she published a series of photographs she had taken that shined a national spotlight on a high school’s segregated proms.

Her photographs caused such public outcry that Montgomery County officially ended the practice of segregating dances the next year.

When Laub returned to document Montgomery County High School’s first integrated prom, she was threatened and kicked out. She then stumbled across the story of Justin Patterson – a 22-year-old black man who was killed by Norman Neesmith, a 62-year-old white man.

Patterson and his 18-year-old brother, Sha’von, had been invited to Neesmith’s home late one night by his 18-year-old niece Danielle, whom Neesmith had raised. The Patterson brothers smoked pot with Danielle and a 15-year-old friend before pairing off to separate bedrooms.

Neesmith then woke up and found the young men in his home. While details of what happened next vary by account, the confrontation ended with Neesmith shooting Justin as he and his brother attempted to flee. The young man died in Neesmith’s yard.

Laub remained in Montgomery County and filmed extensive interviews with Patterson’s family and friends as well as with Neesmith. The resulting documentary, Southern Rites, airs Monday night on HBO.

“I knew that this was the story that just needed to be told,” Laub tells PEOPLE.

Laub reached out to Justin Patterson’s mother, Deedee Clarke, who was reluctant to speak at first.

“For one thing, the D.A. had told me and my ex-husband that it was best that we didn’t talk about the case,” Clarke tells PEOPLE. “So we didn’t talk about the case because he was the D.A., and we thought he was on our side.”

But after the trial was postponed several times, Clarke began to feel that Laub was the only person who wanted to help.

“I wanted everybody to know that my son Justin had died and nobody cared,” she says.

“[Justin] died right at the uprising of all of these high-profile cases, like Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown,” Clarke continued. “I remember watching television, and I was looking at the Trayvon Martin case, and I just remember looking at his mom thinking, ‘Wow, I know exactly how this lady feels; the pain is real.’ I knew what she was dealing with, but I thought at least everybody knows what happened to her son.”

“Unfortunately, I think that he’s one of many that we don’t hear about and haven’t heard about,” Laub says.

Neesmith’s lawyers told the photographer that the fact that Patterson’s case made it to court at all was “progress.”

“In this county, there are apparently five other stories of unarmed black men who were killed by older white men, and none of them made it into the courts,” Laub says.

The D.A. brought seven charges against Neesmith, including murder, false imprisonment and aggravated assault. After several delays, he pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter and reckless conduct and was sentenced to a year in a special detention program.

“The night it happened – [the D.A.] told me and my ex-husband that this man would never see the light of day,” Clarke says. “A year later, we’re told that this is a Jim Crow county and he wouldn’t be able to get a real conviction because the man is well known and he’s a farmer. What does being a farmer have to do with murdering a young black boy?”

Clarke says that watching Neesmith’s scenes in the documentary was “very hard.”

“I didn’t really look at him much in the courtroom,” she tells PEOPLE. “Seeing him sent me back as if it had just happened all over again.”

But the process of making the film was also cathartic for Clarke.

“I’m just so glad that this all came out, and I’ve really learned to walk through the pain instead of standing still,” she says.

The experience also allowed Clarke to connect more with her younger son about the events of the tragic night.

“One of the things [Sha’von] told me was that Justin said to him right before he died, ‘Tell Mommy I love her,’ and that was powerful for me,” she says.

“I’m hoping [the film] will be a message to young people as well as mothers. You can survive something like this, you can survive it,” she adds.

Amidst the tragedy, both Clarke and Laub found hope in Laub’s original assignment – she was finally able to film an integrated prom. Laub says the town’s younger generation “kept me coming back and made me hopeful and inspired me.”

“They really are a whole new generation that doesn’t see things the way that their parents do, and it was very apparent to me,” she says.

Clarke was also heartened by scenes of students of all races coming together.

“It did it really did give me some sense of hope for them,” she tells PEOPLE.

“Even if they were taught that they were separate, I’m hoping that young people will realize that they are all equal,” she says. “As people try to divide them – like you saw at the prom – I’m hoping that these kids understand that they are all equal.”