There is Only One Race and This Tennessee Teacher Proves It

“He’s my brother

`The third grade children, students of Jane Elliott, had just named him “hero of the month” when they learned of his brutal death a few days later. It was April 6, 1968 and the country had been suffering from the effects of racial discrimination accompanied by violence. Martin Luther Kings’s words and sacrifices had given balm to the souls of all.

The children, who attended school in the small, all-white town of Riceville, Iowa came to school the day after the shooting at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee, visibly upset. Their “Hero of the Month” was dead. Martin Luther King had been shot. Killed by the bullet !of an assassin! Why? The children didn’t understand.

Television videos had been widely shown depicting the scene of the crime and pictures of the Hero speaking his last words: “I want you to know tonight that we, as a people, will get to the promised land…” they had seen the throngs of people passing by his casket … the shooting … it was more than little minds could take in.

Ms. Jane Elliott scanned the little third grade faces sitting before her at their desks. Somber they were! The usually happy smiles were absent and the faces were serious, some with red rimmed eyes. Sad.

Ms. Elliott came up with a plan to teach her children a daring lesson in the meaning of discrimation. What does it feel like? What can it do to people.She divided her class by eye color – those with blue eyes and those with brown. On the first day, the blue eyed children were told that they were smarter, nicer, neater, and better than those with brown eyes. Throughout the day, Ms. Elliott praised them and allowed them priveleges such as taking a long recess and being first in the lunch line. In contrast, the brown eyed children had to wear collars around their necks. Their behavior and performance was criticized and ridiculed by Ms. Elliott.

On the second day, the roles were reversed and the blue eyed children were made to feel inferior while the brown eyes were designated the best group.

What happened over the course of the unique two-day exercise astonished both students and teacher. On both days, children who were designated as inferior took on the look and behariour of genuinely inferior students, performing poorly on tests and other works.

In contrast the ‘superior’ students – students who had been sweet and tolerant before the exercise – became mean spirited and seemed to like discriminating against the ‘inferior’ group.

“I watched what had been marvelous, cooperative, wonderful, thoughtful children turn into nasty, vicious, discriminating little third-graders in a space of fifteen minutes” says Ms. Elliott. She said that she realized then that she had “created a microcosm” of society in a third-grade classroom”

Ms Elliott repeated the exercise with her new classes in the following year. The third time, in 1970, cameras were present.

Fourteen years later, FRONTLINE’S ‘A Class Divided’ chronicled a mini-reunion of that 1970’s third grade class. As young adults, Elliott’s former students watch themselves on film and talk about the impact which Elliott’s lesson in bigotry has had on their lives and attitudes. It was Jane Elliott’s first chance to find out how much of her lesson her students had retained.

“Nobody likes to be looked down upon. Notody likes to be hated or discriminated against” said Verla, one of the former students.

Another, Sandra, tells Elliott: “You hear these people talking about different people and how they’d like to have them out of the country. And sometimes I just wish I had that collar in my pocket. I could whip it out and put it on and say “Wear this, and put yourself in their place.” I wish they would go through what I went through, you know”

In the last part of ‘A Class Divided, FRONTLINE’S cameras follow Jane Elliott as she takes her exercises to employees of the Iowa prison system. During a day-long workshop in human relations she teaches the same lesson to adults. Their reactions to the blue-eye, brown-eye exercise re similar to those of the children.

“After you do this exercise, when the debriefing starts, when the pain is over and they’re all back together, you find how society could be if we really believed all this stuff that we preach, if we really acted that way, you could feel as good about one another as those kids feel about one another after this exercise is over. You create instant cousins” says Ms. Elliott. “The kids said over and over, “We’re kind of like a family now” They found out how to hurt one another and they found out how it feels to be hurt in that way and ….

they refuse to ever hurt one another in that way again….”

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