Just when the children decide to keep their friendship in "And the Children Shall Lead," the one-hour program about life in Mississippi in the 1960s ends.
And ending at the juncture where black and white children decide to ignore the divisions of the adult community -- and where the scene is one of complete harmony and acceptance -- raises more questions than are answered in this competent treatment of race relations.
"Children," a segment of "WonderWorks," the family series on the Public Broadcasting Service that airs at 8 tonight on Channel 26, uses the tensions of a segregated town in 1965 to look at how two families deal with the arrival of civil rights workers.
Both families apparently had treated the growing freedom movement for blacks as items on the newscasts and, for different reasons, expressed some anxieties as the school bus filled with the earnest organizers rolled into town.
The black family, the Hendersons, headed by Denise Nicholas and Danny Glover, with Beah Richards as Annie, the grandmother, want their lives changed, but initially hold back from actively joining the voter registration drive. The father works as a house painter and the grandmother is the housekeeper for a white family headed by the local sheriff. Andrew Prine, who plays the sheriff, and his wife, played by Michele Marsh, feel only a few exceptional blacks, like Annie, should have the right to vote.
But the children see their worlds differently. Rachel Henderson, the black 12-year-old portrayed by Pam Potillo, feels free to play with the white children. Jenny Connelly, her white playmate portrayed by Mandy Peterson, has enough gumption to let Paulette, Rachel's younger sister, use the whites-only bathroom but has enough sense to know she has broken a law. And a white boy is brave enough to write love notes to Rachel.
But the adults are acting differently. Sheriff Connelly confronts the leader of the registration drive, emphatically played by LeVar Burton, and tells him to leave. Then he goes home to confront Annie the housekeeper, and the story lights up. "What do you think of this civil rights mess?" Connelly asks Annie. "Well, number one, I don't think it's a mess . . . It is not mess. Mess ain't necessary, and civil rights is," she answers.
The story, produced by Topper Carew and the Rainbow Television Workshop, takes a caring look at family conflict. Some depth might have been added by a final scene with the children telling their families about their excitement over the civil rights movement, the richness of their friendships and how parents could talk or come together to bridge the growing divisions in town.
The misfortune of "Children's" incompleteness is that its race problem still exists. It would have been nice for the young audiences to see the impact of the children's example.