The 50th anniversary of the Supreme Court decision known as Brown vs. Board of Education is nothing if not a teaching moment. And television is seizing it with some of its most enlightened and socially responsible programming in years.
Television plays a central role in shared memory. What we remember as a nation is in large part determined by which anniversaries TV chooses to highlight. While television is often castigated for shortened attention spans and an emphasis on live, local and late-breaking news instead of historical storytelling, this time the medium is clearly making an effort to help us remember and understand an important part of our national past.
No one tells the story of Brown vs. Board and its legacy better than filmmaker Stanley Nelson in Beyond Brown: Pursuing the Promise, which airs Wednesday night at 10 on MPT (Channels 22 and 67). Nelson, who won Peabody and Emmy awards for his PBS documentary The Murder of Emmett Till, is one of the nation's premier chroniclers of the black experience.
Beyond Brown opens at an all-black high school in Virginia after World War II, anchoring its narrative of sweeping historical change in the very real world of tar-paper shacks and outdoor toilets -- the school environment for African-American students at Moton High in Prince Edward County in the early 1950s.
One man's story
John Stokes, a student at Moton in 1951, offers testimony in the film to what it was like: "As a person looks around, he sees a brick building for another race, and he has to walk by that brick building two miles to a school that's wooden. And that school has an outdoor toilet. And when he goes to that outdoor toilet, he looks and sees maggots right near where he has to sit, and that is demeaning to that human being."
Stokes and his classmates went on strike over those conditions in 1951, calling on the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) for help in getting a better school.
Their suit against the county's all-white school board was one of five that were combined under the heading Brown vs. Board of Education taken up by the Supreme Court of the United States.
The court's ruling on May 17, 1954, that separate facilities are not equal, overturned a national policy of segregation that had been affirmed in 1896 by the same court.
But telling the history of Brown is merely the launching pad for this PBS documentary. Once viewers understand what happened in 1954, Nelson quickly turns his attention to the real thrust of the film -- the immediate and ongoing resistance today to the goals of integration sounded by the Supreme Court.
As one California school administrator puts it in the film, "In the 50 years since Brown, I don't think the Supreme Court could have possibly predicted how resistant Americans would be to desegregation and how the institutions would find ways to re-segregate students."
Nelson tells that story starting in Prince Edward County, where the school board closed all public schools for four years in the wake of Brown rather than integrate. Beyond Brown then travels from North Hollywood, Calif., to the upscale community of Hastings, N.Y., to show how segregated and unequal American schools still are -- sometimes divided by race within the very same institution. It is a sobering picture for those who would like to believe in the myth of a level academic playing field for American children in 2004.
A Change Is Gonna Come: Brown vs. Board of Education, a syndicated documentary airing at 7 tonight on WBAL (Channel 11), focuses on the legal case and the times in which it was heard. While the film's focus is narrow, it catches nuances of the event and the way it is remembered today that the others miss.
As witnesses to the history of 1954 share their recollections in the various films, one can't help but notice how the events surrounding Brown have taken on the aura of myth.
For example, in Nelson's film, a woman remembers Klansmen coming to Moton High after the ruling and burning a cross on the football field: "They burned a cross that was so huge and so hot that grass never grew in that spot again."
That's the kind of mythic language that should be questioned by a trip to the field. But Nelson, for all the fine things he does, lets such language stand unchecked.
But in A Change Is Gonna Come, the issue of separating myth from fact as we remember Brown is wisely examined -- in one case by Larry Gibson, a University of Maryland law professor, who questions some of the history surrounding the career of Thurgood Marshall, the most celebrated member of the NAACP legal team that argued Brown.
I Sit Where I Want: The Legacy of Brown v. Board of Education, a film made for N, the Noggin cable channel for teens, disposes of Brown itself with a few quick statements of fact as it quickly gets down to its real business of examining schoolhouse segregation today. The look and pace is pure MTV, but that's a good thing in this case, because the filmmakers take that stylistic energy and use it to bring to life their story of students trying to integrate their lunchroom at a magnet high school in Buffalo, N.Y.
Made by Whitney Dow and Marco Williams, the team responsible for PBS' acclaimed Two Towns of Jasper, I Sit Where I Want uses the microcosm of this one school to tell the story of segregation today as well as it has been told on television since Two Towns. The tremendous hope that spilled out of that Washington courtroom 50 years ago never seems as alive as when these students talk about their hopes of getting blacks, whites and Latinos to sit side by side for just a few minutes on one day as they eat their lunches. But there is also something ever so disappointing about the way we live today in that such a small moment seems so impossible a dream for these kids.
I Sit Where I Want airs at 9 p.m. May 17 on the N cable network. It will be screened Thursday at 10 a.m. at the National Museum of History in Washington as part of the Smithsonian's Brown vs. Board of Education exhibition.
A Change Is Gonna Come: Brown vs. Board of Education airs at 7 tonight on WBAL, Channel 11
Beyond Brown: Pursuing the Promise airs Wednesday night at 10 on MPT (Channels 22 and 67)
I Sit Where I Want airs at 9 p.m. May 17 on the N cable network