Credit: Leland School District
Atlanta filmmaker explores racial integration of schools in his hometown
LISTEN: GPB's Peter Biello speaks with filmmaker Doug Blackmon, whose new documentary explores what happened when one Mississippi community finally integrated its public schools in 1969 — including his own.
In 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court declared racial segregation in schools unconstitutional. Yet some schools in the South resisted desegregation. Some schools waited until the court pushed again in 1969 to integrate. Among those were the schools in Leland, Mississippi. Atlanta filmmaker Doug Blackmon was among the first group of kids to be integrated in Leland. And for his latest film. Blackmon, who is Professor of Practice at Georgia State University in the Creative Media Industries Institute, tracked down his former classmates to learn more about their experience of Leland's racial divide. The film is called The Harvest and is part of the PBS's American Experience series. A screening will take place at the Rialto in Atlanta on Sept. 7. Blackmon spoke with GPB's Peter Biello.
Peter Biello: So you were part of that class of 1982. You didn't end up graduating from Leland, though, right? You moved away in your senior year, was it? Or just high school?
Doug Blackmon: Middle of high school.
Peter Biello: Middle of high school. But before classes began for you, for the class of 1982 in Leland, how segregated was that town?
Doug Blackmon: Completely. Segregation had been declared unconstitutional 15 years earlier, and it was no longer the case that a Black person couldn't walk into the public library. But for most practical purposes, the world was just as segregated as it had ever been. And obviously the church was completely white or Black. Little League baseball, the swimming pool. No Black person ever entered the same pool as a white person. And there was no pool for Black people. In every way it was still as archly segregated as it had been a decade or probably 30 years before.
Peter Biello: And do you remember, as a child, any talk of schools being desegregated before you entered that class for the first time?
Doug Blackmon: Absolutely none. And I can't imagine that there was any in my presence until much, much later. I was aware at some very early point that something was going on. There was some tension or drama in the air and a child could perceive that. But across the board for me and many of my classmates, the adults simply weren't talking openly about any of the stuff that was happening. And so we approached the first grade with probably the same kind of naive excitement that almost every first grader would.
Peter Biello: You would have been like 6 or 7, right?
Doug Blackmon: 5 or 6.
Peter Biello: Five or six. Okay. So that young. Well, in one part of the film, you and a variety of your classmates described what it was like as kids to start school as the first racially integrated class.
Brandon Taylor: There was no conversation about, you know, anything, you know, being different. You know, we're just going to another school, be on your best behavior, you know, like your parents would want you to.
Doug Blackmon: There were Black kids in my class. That didn't strike me as surprising or any usual because it was the only thing I — it was the only kind of school I knew.
Donald Richardson: From a 5-year-old's perspective, there was no difference in the children: Black, white.
John McCannlish: I didn't really had any awareness of the racial integration. I think I was just trying to make new friends.
Jesse King: It was a very first-time experience. The experience of interacting with the white students was at the school, and I thought it was cool.
Peter Biello: That was Brandon Taylor, you, Donald Richardson, John McCannlish and Jesse King. So for the children, Doug, it seemed like it's just a normal thing to do. They want to go to school. They want to make friends and have fun and learn. But for the adults — the adults in the community found a way to maintain a form of segregation through private schools. Can you tell us a little bit about what happened there?
Doug Blackmon: In almost every place in Mississippi and all across the South, every place where there was a substantial Black population, including cities and towns all over Georgia and including Atlanta — at that stage of the game, many white people were still desperate to preserve segregation in some form, though by that time they'd begun to figure out that the language of overt racism was ugly in the in the ears of most other Americans. And so they were not quite calling it a defense of segregation and began to use other words that we're more familiar with today to try to talk about why they suddenly were opening private schools in hundreds and hundreds of places all across the Deep South. And so a significant contingent of white children and white families who, a year earlier, would have shown up on that same day, the beginning day of school — all the white kids over here, all the Black kids on the other side of town — about half of the white folks in my hometown did not show up on that day.
Peter Biello: Your film spends some time talking about whether desegregation was successful. And I guess it depends a lot on how you define success. And some of the folks you interviewed said, "Yeah, it was very good that individuals got to know each other because you can't hate what you know." And if you if you get to know people, if they help you with your algebra homework, for example, as one person mentioned in the film, you know, the hate kind of evaporates in that kind of scenario. But that's good. But there were limitations to what desegregation could do. And one person you interviewed, Pamela Pepper, spells those out.
Pamela Pepper: "Looking back, I have sadness now that I didn't have then about the fact that there were wonderful social relationships between 8:15 and 3:30 and at football games and working on homecoming floats and whatever else. But they didn't extend beyond that between Black kids and white kids."
Peter Biello: In other words, school was a safe space in some ways. But Black kids still to some extent, felt uncomfortable going into white neighborhoods, for example, to see their white friends because they — they knew the risks involved.
Doug Blackmon: The reality was that that no one was encouraging —whether white adults or Black adults — no one was encouraging that there be any kind of interaction between Black kids and white kids after the school bell rang at the end of the day. Those were common sorts of things where people — where children — could simply feel that there was something about getting together beyond the school day that was not going to be liked by their parents, even if their parents were among the folks who were quote unquote, "committed" to public schools and committed to to race, to civil rights and and such. There was just a fear that something unexpected would happen.
Peter Biello: Overall, what do you hope viewers take away from your film?
Doug Blackmon: At the end of the film, we, without saying the words, we ask the question, "Was it worth it?" And we're talking about what happened to that class, what happened to that town. But we're also asking that question about all of America, because here we are in a time when so much progress has been made. Our society and our country is so different, so much better in terms of race. Even with all the problems we still have, so much progress has been made over the last 30 years, over the last 50 years. And for me, that's the most fundamental paradox of our society. So much progress and yet still so vulnerable. And so we ask that question. The things that we did, the experiences we had, the sacrifices some people made, all of those things: Were they worth it, given that where we've ended up? And I think that my answer to that question, at least at the end of the film, is that, yes, it was worth it. Tremendous things were accomplished, particularly in the individual lives of those who experienced what we did. And it was working, even with its failures in some respects, it was working. It's simply that as a society, we gave up. We gave up too soon. We gave up when it felt too hard. But those are the ways, the things that we experience, those are the ways that a different kind of society could still perhaps come to exist.
Peter Biello: American Experience The Harvest will premiere in Atlanta at the Rialto Center Thursday, Sept. 7 at 6:30 p.m. You can also see it on GPB-TV on Tuesday, Sept. 12 at 9 p.m.