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"George Wallace: Settin’ the Woods on Fire" offers an interesting perspective on many themes covered in the study of American history, from presidential politics, political parties, and American regionalism (particularly as it relates to the role of the South in American politics and culture), to desegregation, busing, and race relations. You can either use part of all of the film with your class or delve into the rich resources available on this Web site to supplement your classroom activities.

Note: Make sure to preview this program before assigning it to your students. The program deals frankly with racial issues, regionalism, and political strategy. It is important to give some historical context to the program and to set ground rules to insure respectful discussion (e.g., no name-calling, no put-downs, and respect for all viewpoints. Do not press for a resolution of friction that may occur during the discussion. Students should be responsible for their words and actions).

Running Time: 3hrs
Taping Rights: Educators can tape the film off the air and use it for one year after broadcast.

Before Viewing

  1. Discuss political campaigning with students. How do politicians get votes? How do they create platforms? How do they present platforms? How are platforms influenced by the public? By political parties? By funders? What percentage of a politician’s platform do students believe reflects his or her own personal beliefs? What percentage reflects outside influences? Which influences on political campaigns do students believe worthwhile? Harmful?

  2. Discuss "separate but equal" education with your class. Introduce its beginnings in the Supreme Court finding for "Plessy v. Ferguson", 1896, and compare it with Justice John Marshall Harlan’s dissent. What are the major differences between the two understandings? How did "Plessy v. Ferguson" affect public education in the United States? Then introduce the 1954 "Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka" unanimous decision reversing "Plessy v. Ferguson". What did "Brown v. Board of Education" change? How did the change take effect? Did change happen smoothly? Use the "Desegregation" feature in the People and Events section, as well as the 1957 crisis at Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, as examples of the enormous tensions surrounding this issue.

After Viewing

  1. Congressman John Lewis noted of George Wallace’s political turnaround on racism, "He was reverting to maybe--just maybe--his true self." Discuss with your class George Wallace’s political motivations. Why did he run for political office? What do you think was most important to him about public service? How did his motivations inform his platform? Why, in the end, did he reach out to those he’d hurt most? Do you think his actions were sincere?

  2. Discuss the views Pat Buchanan expresses in the film on George Wallace and today’s conservative movement (you should review with your students the basic platform of the Christian Right conservative movement, its leaders and its social and financial views). Have students consider the following: What do Wallace’s ideas have in common with the current Christian Right? How do the two ideologies differ? Why is Wallace referred to in the film as "the invisible founding father" of today’s movement? Why might conservatives today want to distance themselves from Wallace?

  3. Ask students to compare and contrast Lurleen Wallace's 1966 gubernatorial campaign with Hillary Clinton's 2000 senatorial race in a presentation or report. Have them consider the following: What are the motivations of each? What roles do their husbands play in their campaigns? What issues make up their platforms? How do they go about winning votes? What is the relationship of each to her corresponding political party? How does the previous role of First Lady (whether statewide or national) affect the candidacy of each?

  4. Discuss with students changes in education stemming from "Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka." Could George Wallace’s "stand in the schoolhouse door" happen now? In 1955, nearly one year after the Supreme Court ruled that racial segregation in public places was unconstitutional, the court said that the desegregation of public schools must proceed "with all deliberate speed." The nation’s schools each interpreted "deliberate speed" differently. Some schools complied quickly and quietly, while others did not segregate until almost 30 years later, under court order. As a way to encourage students to think about the relationship between the "Brown" decision and their own school situation, have them research what happened in their school district after the "Brown "decision and how members of their community responded to desegregation. Students can get this information by interviewing parents, teachers, and administrators, or someone at a local office of the NAACP. They can also look through old local newspapers for articles, editorials, and cartoons about desegregation, or check statistics about the changing demographics of their school district from 1954 to the present.

    Students can also do an assessment of what their school is like today. Do they think their school is integrated? Why or why not? Ask them to look at the ethnic and racial background of students, staff, and faculty. If students live in a homogeneous community, what steps could be taken to make the community more diverse? (Answers might include offering special mortgage rates to low income and minority families, hosting refugee families, etc.) (If you would like to explore the issue of desegregation further with your students, you may want to view "Simple Justice," a docudrama about these events produced for "The American Experience" in 1992 and available through PBS Video, (800) 424-7963.)

  5. Talk with your class about how George Wallace is "documented" in both the film and the Web site. How did the filmmakers and the web developers tell his story? What elements did they use? Who did they talk to? Include in your discussion oral history, photography, primary sources, dramatic reenactment, newspaper and television accounts. Then ask students to document the life of a friend or relative, whether in a report, a Web site, a video, or other media. Ask them to consider the following: What were the subject’s goals? How did the subject go about meeting or not meeting them? How did the subject’s background affect his/her later life? Where was the person from? Where else did the person live? What was this person’s family life like? Was the person happy? Unhappy? Satisfied? Who did he/she affect, both at home and through work? Were others affected positively or negatively?

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