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Lessons from Jane Elliott - Joel Hall

As most newsrooms keep a television on with broadcast media sounding low in the background, on Friday, I was subliminally subjected to a full day of other people's thoughts on Martin Luther King, Jr., 40 years after his assassination.

People who knew King recalled the kind of man he was. People who didn't know King speculated about how he would judge the current racial climate if he were still alive, and how far we have come as a "united" America.

Thinking about what King may have to say about America in 2008, my mind drew a blank. Although I desperately wish I could have met him, I never knew King, and to make assumptions about this modern-day martyr felt presumptions -- sacrilegious, even.

From his writings, I know King had mixed emotions about this country. He loved this country, but realized it was full of faults that would not be solved within his lifetime.

Rather than assume King's thoughts about the state of the country, however, I thought back to a fortunate conversation I had in college with Jane Elliott, a woman whose life is intricately tied to King's death.

For those who don't remember, Jane Elliott is a lifelong educator who is famous for creating the "Blue Eyes/Brown Eyes" experiment. Born in Riceville, Iowa, which in 1968 was a rural, all-white, farming community -- Elliott was inspired to create the exercise after a particularly painful incident of racism at the local school in which she was a teacher.

The racism was not directed toward any student or teacher. There were no people of color attending, or working at the school then. The racism was directed toward King on the day of his assassination.

As teachers watched the news on a television in their lounge, Elliott observed one teacher say something to the effect of, "serves him right." Some faculty members openly expressed their beliefs that King got what was coming to him.

Soon after, Elliott set out to create the Blue Eyes/Brown Eyes experiment. Over the course of a few days, Elliott took her class of third-grade students -- all white -- and exposed them to large doses of institutionalized racism. Students with one eye color were given fewer privileges, reprimanded harshly, and treated as inferior beings, while students with another eye color were praised and given special perks, like extra recess time.

Elliott found students in the disadvantaged group performed more poorly on short tests than the students who were treated better, even though both groups' preparation was equal. She found the same was true when the rolls of the advantaged and disadvantaged students were reversed.

The experiment gained national attention and was later tested with adult groups, yielding similar results. In the aftermath, however, Elliott, her family, and her students were ostracized by town members. Elliott was branded by many as a "nigger lover," and eventually had to move away from that community.

More than 30 years after the experiment, I listened to what Elliott had to say in a lecture at Emory University. In that lecture, she talked about the prejudice her grandchildren -- who have middle eastern heritage -- receive when they are with her. That prejudice was exacerbated by the fact that the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks were then only a recent occurrence.

At the end of her speech, she basically said America will never be the country it has the potential to be, until it can conquer the matter of race, amicably and completely. I don't know what King would think of us now, but I think he would agree with that.

Joel Hall covers government and politics for the Clayton News Daily. He can be reached via e-mail at jhall@news-daily.com.