One Friday in April, 1968
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., tells a press conference in Chicago, March 24, 1967 that civil rights demonstrations in Chicago will be on a much more massive scale than last summer. King said marches will include some by African American pupils to all-white schools. (AP Photo/Charles Harrity)
Producer William Peters, in this first chapter of his book A Class Divided: Then and Now (Yale University Press, 1987), relates the story behind Jane Elliott’s decision to teach a daring “blue-eyes/brown-eyes” lesson in discrimination to her class of third graders. Copyright 1987 by William Peters. Reprinted here by permission of the author.
On any normal weekday morning, Jane Elliott looked forward to getting to her classroom at the Riceville, Iowa, Community Elementary School and to the teaching job she loved. Eager to pick up the threads of the previous day’s lessons, delighting in her third-graders’ sense of wonder at anything new, she saw each day as a kind of adventure in the company of children she enjoyed. Often she was reluctant, when the day was over, to see them leave. Not infrequently, they felt the same way. Once they had seriously proposed that the entire class spend the night at school.
But that Friday in April, 1968, was not a normal morning. The day before, Martin Luther King had been murdered in Memphis. For Jane, that had suddenly made a lot of things different. She had made a decision about what she would do in her class, a decision that now made her reluctant to leave the house for school.
Her husband, Darald, was perfectly capable of seeing that their four children were properly fed and dressed for school before he left for his own job. He did it often when she had a particular reason for getting to the school a little early. Yet today she fussed about the kitchen, urging one child to eat and another to change his shoes, sipping at a second cup of coffee — knowing that she was only stalling.
Finally, with a glance at her watch, she shrugged into a jacket and said good-by. Darald, who knew what she was planning, winked at her and then smiled encouragingly. She grimaced at him as she went out the door.
She had made her decision, and she would stick to it, though she dreaded what she felt sure lay ahead. For a while, at least, she would be making each of her twenty-eight students unhappy; for a time, all would dislike her and resent what she was putting them through. She had worked hard since September to establish a warm and trusting relationship with each of them, and she had been proud of their success as a class in becoming a happy, co-operative, productive group. What she was now going to do would strain those hard-won ties, perhaps even threaten them. It was hardly a pleasant prospect.
Still, driving her car through the quiet, early-morning streets, she refused to give in to her growing sense of apprehension. She had to do something if she was any kind of teacher at all. She refused to do something that was essentially meaningless. What she had thought of promised at least a chance of being an effective lesson. Nor was there time now to plan anything else. Whatever was to be done would have to be done today, while the shock of Dr. King’s brutal assassination still reverberated in the mind.
She had made her decision in horror and anger and shame the night before as she sat on the living-room floor ironing the stitched sheets of an Indian tepee and watching the television coverage of the aftermath of the murder. That decision had stood the test of the dawn’s colder appraisal, and she was not going to permit a faint heart to change it.
The things she had planned to teach inside the giant tepee would now have to wait, she decided, for all of them had paled beside the urgent message that had burst from her television set the night before. Now, the senselessness, the irrationality, the brutality of race hatred cried out to be explained, understood, committed irrevocably to memory in a lesson that would become a part of the life of each child she could reach with it.
That was what she had struggled half the night to devise; it was what she had finally thought of: a lesson that might accomplish just that. She knew that her children would ask about the murder, that they had undoubtedly watched what she had watched. They had already discussed Martin Luther King in class. Now they would have to discuss his violent death. But this time, they would do more than that. Much more.
Setting aside her doubts, she opened the door of Room 10, turned on the lights, and went to her desk. As she sat down, she saw before her the Sioux prayer she had planned to teach the children after they had erected the giant tepee: “Oh, Great Spirit, keep me from ever judging a man until I have walked a mile in his moccasins.” It was precisely the lesson she hoped to teach today, though not at all in the way she had contemplated. First, she thought unhappily, they are going to have to walk that mile.
It began, really, even before the bell rang. A boy came into the room bursting with the news. “They shot that King yesterday!” he said excitedly. “Why did they shoot that King?”
“We’ll talk about that,” Jane promised, and after the opening exercises, they did. When everyone had had a chance to tell what he knew, Jane asked them what they had heard and what they knew about Negroes. In the tiny town of Riceville, population 898, and the sparsely settled farming area surrounding it, there were no Negroes. In the school’s textbooks, like those in so many American schools, Negroes were neither mentioned nor pictured. Whatever her children said, then, Jane assumed would have come from parents, relatives, and friends, from what they had learned in school — in her own class and in the grades before — and from things they had seen and heard in a rare movie or on the radio or television.
Rather quickly, a pattern developed from their answers. Negroes weren’t as smart as white people. They weren’t as clean. They fought a lot. Sometimes they rioted. They weren’t as civilized. They smelled bad.
None of it was said in a vicious way. There was no venom, no fear, no hate, but rather a sort of disapproval, a sense of disdain. Some of the children quoted parents to back up points, though there was no real argument. It was as though their teacher had asked them to describe a vaguely unpleasant experience they had all shared. They told what they knew about Negroes calmly, reaching back in their memories for details, corroborating each other, expanding on each other’s points. Behind her expression of friendly interest, Jane was appalled.
She asked them to define the words “prejudice,” “discrimination,” “race,” “inferior.” That was not difficult; they had discussed these concepts before. Then they talked about some of the things Negroes in various parts of the United States were not permitted to do. Finally, Jane asked them if they could imagine how it would feel to be a black boy or girl.
“This they discussed at some length,” Jane Elliott says now, “and eventually, they decided that they could. Now, in spite of the things they had ‘known’ about Negroes, they became sympathetic. They felt sorry for black children; they didn’t think it was fair for them to be treated differently. And they had had enough of the subject. Dr. King’s death had been adequately disposed of. I could easily have stopped right there.
“Yet all I could think of as I saw this attitude of sympathetic indifference develop was the way I had myself reacted to racial discrimination all these many years: Sure, an incident can anger you. Sure, you feel sorry about the way blacks are being treated. Sure, something ought to be done about it. And now, what shall we talk about?”
But Jane Elliott’s identification with the children in her class went deeper. Raised, like them, on a farm near Riceville, growing up in the all-white, all-Christian community, she had herself lived in the midst of the kinds of prejudices they had expressed in their descriptions of Negroes. Though she had long since rejected those prejudices, there was still much that she could see of herself as a child in the children who sat now at their desks in front of her. She had once been there, too, and was now, at the age of thirty-five, looking back through all the years that had intervened. What she saw — even in her own strong, yet inactive, opposition to racism — was simply not enough.
“I felt desperately,” she says, “that there had to be a way to do more as a teacher than simply tell children that racial prejudice is irrational, that racial discrimination is wrong. We’ve all been told those things. We know them, at least in the sense that we mouth them at appropriate times. Yet we continue to discriminate, or to tolerate it in others, or to do nothing to stop it. What I had racked my brain to think of the night before was a way of letting my children find out for themselves, personally, deeply, what discrimination was really like, how it felt, what it could do to you. Now the time had come to try it.”
What happened next in Jane Elliott’s classroom was, as far as she knew, a product of her own mind. She had never heard of anyone else who had done it. She was not even sure it was a good idea. She knew only that she had to do something, and this was all she had thought of to try.
The idea went back to a half-angry, half-humorous remark she had made to a college roommate years before. Returning to school after a weekend in Riceville, she had told her roommate about an argument she had had with her father on the subject of race. Remembering as she talked about it how her father’s hazel eyes had blazed at her accusations of prejudice, she told her roommate, “If hazel eyes ever go out of style, my father’s going to be in trouble.”
She had no sooner said it than it struck both girls as an interesting observation. Skin color, eye color, hair color or texture: it made as much sense, they decided, to discriminate on the basis of one as another. The two of them talked far into the night about how it must feel to be a Negro in America.
Jane Elliott never forgot that discussion. Later, when she and Darald were married and he became the assistant manager of a supermarket in the Negro section of Waterloo, Iowa, she saw his Negro customers and employees as different from herself only in this: they knew, as she didn’t, how it felt to be the object of prejudice, hate, and fear. Everything else she learned about Negroes convinced her that they were basically no different than whites.
Then, with Darald suddenly transferred to another city, Jane had been faced with the problem of renting their house. A real estate agent and neighbors cautioned her not to rent to blacks. She paid little attention until a woman telephoned in response to an ad. “She asked if the house was for whites or colored,” Jane says, “and suddenly those warnings sprang into my mind. I hesitated a moment and then said that all of my neighbors were white. She said, ‘Oh, well, thank you anyway,’ and hung up, and I stood there with the telephone in my hand feeling as though I had defected to the enemy.
“For a long time after that, I felt like a snake. I knew what I should have done — I should have said the neighborhood was white but that she could come and look at the house if she were interested. But, of course, I hadn’t. I tried to analyze why I had evaded the issue, and I was forced to the conclusion that I had backed away from my principles out of fear of my neighbors’ opinions. If we had rented to a Negro family and later wanted to move back, we would have had to face their anger. I saw that when the chips were down, I had not been able to face that. And I hated myself for it.”
It was after that experience that Jane began to read about the racial crisis in America. One of the books she read was John Howard Griffin’s Black Like Me, the story of a white man’s experiences in the South with his skin dyed a deep brown. Here was a man who had found out what it was like to be a Negro, and Jane suffered with him the thousand daily insults, the inconveniences, the fears, the wounds to pride that Southern Negroes experience in the course of simply going about the business of living.
Then, suddenly, on the night of the day that Martin Luther King was murdered, all of these memories and experiences had coalesced into an idea of how she might give her third-graders a sense of what prejudice and discrimination really meant.
Jane took a deep breath and plunged in. “I don’t think we really know what it would be like to be a black child, do you?” she asked her class. “I mean it would be hard to know, really, unless we actually experienced discrimination ourselves, wouldn’t it?” Without real interest, the class agreed. “Well, would you like to find out?”
The children’s puzzlement was plain on their faces until she spelled out what she meant. “Suppose we divided the class into blue-eyed and brown-eyed people,” she said. “Suppose that for the rest of today the blue-eyed people became the inferior group. Then, on Monday, we could reverse it so that the brown-eyed children were inferior. Wouldn’t that give us a better understanding of what discrimination means?”
Now there was enthusiasm in their response. To some, it may have meant escape from the ordinary routine of a school day. To others, it undoubtedly sounded like a game. “Would you like to try that?” Jane asked. There was an immediate chorus of assent.
Originally published January 2003