This year marks the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. That day changed the lives of many and sparked the activism of Jane Elliott. Elliott was a young white third-grade teacher, who soon after King’s assassination would become known worldwide for her groundbreaking lesson plan in race relations.
Elliott, still an activist and educator, will be in Seattle this month for a screening of “I Am Not Your Negro,” hosted by RIZE Fellowship on Jan. 13 at First Baptist Church. RIZE Fellowship is a progressive faith-based ministry committed to social justice in Seattle. After the screening, Elliott will facilitate a conversation on racial justice.
“I hope that people who attend this event will come away with the understanding that, while there are many color groups on the face of the earth, there is only one race — the HUMAN RACE — of which we are all members,” Elliott told me in an email.
The documentary came out last year and is based on James Baldwin’s unfinished manuscript “Remember This House.” Baldwin’s book is about his three friends Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr., who were murdered before they could see their vision of civil rights come to fruition.
Elliott, whose years of activism have been praised by popular influencers from Oprah Winfrey to Killer Mike, is an appropriate facilitator for discussion following a documentary focusing on King and his effect on galvanizing the United States in favor of civil rights.
Elliott’s work in social justice and education began on April 5, 1968, the day after MLK was murdered.
“I can still remember, it is just one of the worst things that has happened in my life. He was something great and good and more important than either of the Kennedys and more powerful than either of the Kennedys…. I hate to remember that day,” she told radio host Rock Newman.
In most interviews, Elliott fights back tears when she recalls the assassination.
At the time, she taught third grade in an all-white school in Riceville, Iowa. She came home that day and received a phone call from her sister telling her to turn on her TV because “they shot him.”
She continued to watch television and saw members of the black community being asked asinine and insulting questions regarding King’s death by white reporters. She describes MLK as symbolizing hope, which she says is an acronym for “Holding Onto Positive Energy.” She decided that the next day she was going to make sure that her all white class learned the meaning of Sioux tribe’s prayer: “Oh great spirit, keep me from ever judging a man until I have walked in his moccasins.”
Elliott divided her classroom by the color of their eyes — modeled after Hitler’s approach in Nazi Europe — and treated those with brown eyes better than the blue-eyed students. She told the children that brown-eyed children were more civilized and intelligent than the blue-eyed children.
Within 15 minutes she was shocked to see that the children immediately took to their new roles and enforced the caste system she had given them. Brown eyed children mistreated the blue-eyed children — and in turn, blue-eyed children performed below their ability.
Later on in the day, she found herself in the teacher’s lounge looking for support. She told the other third grade teachers what was happening in her classroom. She said that the most senior teacher, who had been in the classroom for 30 years, said to her “I don’t know why you’re doing that, I thought it was about time somebody shot that son of a bitch.”
When Elliott saw that no other teacher in the room frowned or disapproved of their colleague’s evil comment, she made a decision that she was done teaching lies to children and that no student of hers would ever leave her presence with that type of attitude unchallenged.
In 1970, ABC television produced a documentary about Elliott called “Eye of the Storm.” They went into the classroom and filmed the brown-eye/blue-eye exercise. Since then, Elliott has traveled the world exposing young and older people to the blue-eye/brown-eye experiment. She calls herself an educator, instead of a teacher or a trainer.
She had to deal with the backlash of those that did not want to see her succeed in leading people out of ignorance. Her children were beaten and harassed because of her work. She has been threatened with death many times. She is now 84 years old still travels all over the country giving presentations and educating on the myth of race.
If you go
RIZE Fellowship’s screening of “I Am Not Your Negro,” followed by conversation with anti-racism educator Jane Elliott, will be from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday Jan. 13 at First Baptist Church, 1111 Harvard Ave. Tickets available through RIZE Fellowship’s Facebook page.