April 4, 1968, changed everything for Jane Elliott. While much of the nation froze in shock at the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., Elliott took action in the only forum that she had: the classroom. The day following King's death, Elliott introduced an exercise to a small group of 9 year olds. Word of the exercise quickly spread from her small classroom in Riceville, Iowa, to every corner of the United States. A few weeks later, she was sharing her story on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.
Elliott's daring lesson is known as the controversial "Blue Eyes/Brown Eyes" exercise, segregating children based solely upon their eye color. The physical aspect of the exercise was simple. The emotional impact was daring. Elliott, 77, is scheduled to bring her story to Boise State on Wednesday, March 9, as part of a discussion on the anatomy of racism.
How well do you recall April 4, 1968?
To this day, it makes my stomach churn. I can honestly say my life has never been the same, nor has the life of this nation.
How did that resonate for you personally?
I had seen King as a symbol of hope for communication between people who were different but had the same desires. I was trying to teach my third graders how wonderful America was. And he was a man assassinated because of the color of his skin.
How soon after did you first try your blue eyes/brown eyes exercise?
The very next day. I was going to separate my third graders based on the color of their eyes. One day blue-eyed children were the bottom of the ladder. The next day brown-eyed children were looked down upon.
Did the students embrace the exercise?
Absolutely, because they thought it sounded like fun.
What was the initial reaction outside of the classroom?
No one knew about it except the children and their parents. It wasn't until the local newspaper wrote an article on it that anyone really heard about it.
But then the Associated Press picked up the story, and you got a call from The Tonight Show.
We did the exercise in early April, and I was on national television with Johnny Carson in late May. I had never even been on an airplane before. Johnny was very kind but also very curious about the exercise. As a result of that appearance, I got letters from all 50 states. I'd say about a third of them were vicious or vile.
Was there fallout back home?
About 20 percent of parents who had children going into the third grade told the principal that they didn't want their children in my class. Each year for the rest of my career, someone asked for their child to not be in my classroom.
Did you have support from your principal?
It was quiet support. They never fired me, let's put it that way.
Did you experience harassment in your personal life?
My own children were beaten up and spat upon. And people stopped eating in my parents' restaurant.
Did you continue the blue eyes/brown eyes exercise each year?
I did. I knew I had an extremely valuable teaching tool. The biggest education gap of black and white children in this country is between teachers' ears.
Can you compare 1968 to 2011?
I think it's as bad today as it was in 1968 except that we have learned to be covert with our racism. People always tell me, "I don't see color." That's ridiculous. They choose their car by its color. They choose the color of their hair. Do you see color? Is the color of your skin important to you? Does it give you power?
I'm sure it does.
But if you ask the same questions of a person of color, they'll say yes, their skin color matters. But no, it doesn't give them any power.
Prejudice is an emotional commitment to ignorance. We don't want to learn about people who are different from ourselves. People of color have no choice than to learn about white folks.
What color are your eyes?
[Strong laughter] Mine are blue. My husband's are brown. And we've got multi-colors among our kids.