By Bill Sherman
On Friday April 5, 1968, the day after Martin Luther King Jr. was shot, a third grade teacher in Riceville presented a lesson to help her students understand why Dr. King was willing to risk being killed.
That lesson has spread across the globe and has helped untold numbers of students and adults experience the devastating effects of racism. It has become one of the most important lessons in American education. It has been described as a lesson of a lifetime. And it has lasted more than 40 years.
Here’s how it got started. Teacher Jane Elliott was at home on Thursday evening preparing her next day’s lesson for the Indian unit that her third graders were studying. She was ironing the tepee made by her previous students. The tepee was to be erected in her classroom the next day.
She was also watching television. Suddenly, bulletins about the shooting of Martin Luther King flashed across the screen. Elliott knew there would be questions about King the next day in school. He had been one of the “heroes of the month” students had studied in February. How could she answer these questions?
That evening, she developed a plan to help her students learn more about discrimination and understand why King was killed. As she thought about how this could be done, she remembered that in Nazi Germany eye color was one factor used to determine which people would be put to death. Those with blue eyes were considered good and pure and those with brown and green eyes were inferior and could be eliminated. Moments later, Jane decided she would divide her third grade students by the color of their eyes.