'Beyond Brown' Teaches America A Sad Lesson
By Linton Weeks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 12, 2004; Page C01
"Beyond Brown: Pursuing the Promise," a documentary that airs tonight at 10 on Channel 22 and at 11 on Channel 26, is a somber and sobering appraisal of the integration of contemporary American schools.
Sometimes jumpy, sometimes poignant, the hour-long film features interviews with students, teachers, parents and others whose lives have -- and have not -- been touched by Brown v. Board of Education. The case was decided by the Supreme Court on May 17, 1954. The decision was designed to end segregation in America's public schools.
"Beyond Brown" is directed by Stanley Nelson, a MacArthur Fellow who won an Emmy last year for "The Murder of Emmett Till." The reporting in that documentary film led the Justice Department to announce this week that it will assist in a new investigation into the 1955 murder of the young black boy in Mississippi.
The upshot of the new film: According to UCLA education professor Jeannie Oakes, "In the 50 years since Brown, I think the Supreme Court could not possibly have predicted how resistant Americans would be to desegregation and how the institutions would find ways to resegregate students."
The documentary, which is narrated by actor Joe Morton, points out the huge disparities in public education -- through gifted-and-talented programs, increased funding in affluent suburbs and standardized testing that doesn't take cultural discrepancies into account.
It opens with a historic look at the dreadful circumstances -- including vandalized, hand-me-down textbooks and a maggot-infested bathroom -- that spurred the students of R.R. Moton High, an all-black public high school in Prince Edward County, to walk out in 1951 and take the matter to court. That case, and four others, became collectively known as Brown v. Board of Education.
After the separate-but-equal laws were struck down by the court, Prince Edward County closed all of its public schools in 1959 rather than integrate. This was an early warning flare that change in the classroom would not come easily. In 1964, the schools were ordered reopened.
The film's focus then shifts to present-day, still-resistant-to-change America. "Segregation is a very big issue today," writer Luis Rodriguez tells students at North Hollywood High School in California. Using a bar chart, Rodriguez points out that though the school's population is 70 percent Latino, only 11 percent of the students in the school's magnet program are Latino.
Like a Greek chorus, various characters appear in the film and deliver grim observations. Wade J. Henderson, executive director of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, says, "The value of integration to provide a better understanding of who we are has been lost to us."
Feeling blue? The story gets sadder. In another segment, the cameras follow a young white couple who are moving from New York to the suburbs so their children will have better schools. The higher a locale's home values and property taxes, the narrator explains, the more money is funneled to public education. Inevitably, public schools such as Farragut Middle School in Westchester County will be better funded than those in many parts of Manhattan.
Juxtaposed against the educational Eden of Farragut's large, sunny rooms and sparkling wireless computers is Public School 173 in New York, where Rachel Brickman teaches second grade. She has to buy her own materials to create the lowest-of-tech learning games for her classes.
"Not everyone can escape to suburbia," says one PS 173 mom, speaking in Spanish. "We can't move because of our economic situation."
She adds: "I don't think it's fair that someone should have to move from a place for a better school."
There are other provocative profiles, such as one of a voluntary integration program in the Boston suburbs. But one of the most wrenching moments comes from Orlando, where Ashley Johnson, an honor student, failed one of Florida's standardized tests as a senior and lost her college scholarship. She is now a ride operator at the Universal Studios theme park. In a close-up shot, tears stream from her puzzled eyes and she talks of contemplating suicide.
There are probably a dozen more documentaries to be made about the subjects covered in "Beyond Brown." Nelson tries to do too much. But as students, teachers, parents and historians point out, there is much to do.
James H. Cone, a New York theologian, gets in the last words. Half a century after Brown, he says, there is still "a gap between what is and what ought to be."
© 2004 The Washington Post Company