William Peters, 'Class Divided' Director, Has Died

William E. Peters, a journalist who built his career on civil rights issues, has died at 85. He received numerous journalism awards, including an Emmy for his documentary A Class Divided. The film was based on the "Brown Eyes - Blue Eyes" exercise, made popular by a third grade teacher in Iowa. NPR's John Ydstie talks with that educator, Jane Elliott, about her friend and colleague.

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JOHN YDSTIE, host:

As a young journalist, William E. Peters was a pioneer in chronicling the turbulent years of the Civil Rights Movement in print and on television. Mr. Peters died May 28th at age 85.

In August of 1956, Mr. Peters helped familiarize the nation with a 27-year-old minister from Atlanta, Georgia, Martin Luther King Jr. He wrote an article about Dr. King for Redbook magazine titled "Our Weapon is Love". It was the first time that a national audience was introduced to Dr. King's philosophy of nonviolent resistance.

Mr. Peters gained further renown years later for his Emmy Award-winning television documentary, "A Class Divided", aired on PBS, which was a follow-up to his film, "Eye of the Storm". The documentaries focused on an exercise in discrimination, conducted in a third-grade class in Riceville, Iowa.

Jane Elliott was the teacher of that class. She now lectures on discrimination and she joins us from member station KUNI in Cedar Falls, Iowa. Welcome, Ms. Elliott.

Ms. JANE ELLIOTT (Former Third-Grade Teacher, Riceville, Iowa): Oh, thank you.

YDSTIE: You designed this exercise to teach your third-grade students something about human nature. How did William Peters find out about your class? What made you agree to allow him to film?

Ms. ELLIOTT: Well, I didn't design the exercise. I learned it from Adolf Hitler. I pick out a physical characteristic over which people have no control and assign negative traits to them on the basis of that physical characteristic. I did that - the first time I had ever done it, the day after Martin Luther King Jr. was killed in order to let my students know what was very wrong with this country.

Bill Peters saw an article about that in The New York Times and called me the following year and asked me whether I intended to do it again. And so he arranged to come to Riceville and filmed my third-graders going through the exercise.

YDSTIE: Yeah. We actually have a clip from an interview, an NPR interview, in 1987 when Scott Simon talked to you and Mr. Peters about making the film, "A Class Divided". By this time, Mr. Peters had a few years of experience in broadcast and this is what he said about preparing your class to act naturally when the cameras started to roll.

(Soundbite of archived NPR interview)

Mr. WILLIAM E. PETERS (Documentary Filmmaker): The first day, we encouraged them to ask questions about the camera and how it worked, and I think every child went home with a piece of film or something. The second day, they were, sort of, used to us. And when this exercise began, they were riveted. When I looked at all the film after we had filmed for the next two days, I expected to see children looking at the camera because this is what everybody does occasionally. There are only two instances in which children looked at the camera during the two-day exercise. So it was - it was as though we weren't there.

SCOTT SIMON: Ms. Elliott, were you surprised that your children were so focused on this lesson that they totally forgot about the cameras?

Ms. ELLIOTT: No, and when I do this with adults in front of cameras, they forget about the cameras, too, because they are so engrossed in what's happening.

SIMON: In a number of cases, what you've done is divide the class up by eye color, right?

Ms. ELLIOTT: I divide the class according to color of their eyes. I make sure that if I'm - particularly if I'm teaching in an integrated or if I'm working an integrated group, the brown-eyed people are always on the top. Blue-eyed people have to sit in chairs in the middle of the room. The brown-eyed people sit in chairs facing the middle of the room so they can keep the bullies under surveillance. It only takes five to seven minutes to convince everyone in that room that all the ugly things I'm saying about blue-eyed people are true. And all the lovely things that I'm saying about brown-eyed people are true.

SIMON: It's amazing, isn't it? Its…

Ms. ELLIOTT: Oh yeah, it is. It's a study in human frailty. I can have the same effect on 60-year-old white males, tall, white, important so-called white males that you have on third graders. And you can do it in 10 minutes with adults.

YDSTIE: We also have a clip of Mr. Peters discussing how he witnessed these kinds of changes that you're talking about.

(Soundbite of archived NPR interview)

Mr. PETERS: The group that was the - so-called inferior group, they were slumping. Their facial expressions had changed. They were scowling and very quickly after that, a few of them were beginning to cry and sniffle and so forth. Whereas the other group, the superior group, their posture changed. They sat up straight. They were proud. They were - it was dynamic and very exciting and a frightening thing to watch.

YDSTIE: Tell us a little bit about Mr. Peters and how he responded at that time.

Ms. ELLIOTT: I think he was absolutely gobsmacked(ph). I think he had no idea that this was this powerful. I think he thought he was going to film a little third-grade exercise and it wasn't going to mean a whole lot. And then, when one of the camera crew was crying because of the way the kids were reacting, I think he realized at that point that there was a whole lot more here than anybody had talked about or had realized.

We did the "Phil Donahue Show", Bill Peters and I did. And he started to answer the question Phil Donahue would ask me, and I said, look, Bill, I can answer my own questions. Just because you had those blue eyes that you're rude on camera. He was furious because that wasn't supposed to bother him. Adults aren't supposed to be bothered by this.

YDSTIE: Did you get a sense that you're in the presence of a journalistic pioneer when he was there or was he just a regular kind of curious person?

Ms. ELLIOTT: No, I thought of him as somebody who saw a chance to make a difference where racism is concerned because he really was concerned about that. He had lots of faults and foibles as we all have, but he was concerned about the level of racism in the United States. And I think he saw a real opportunity with this documentary to make a difference, to make people see things in a different way and that's exactly what it did.

YDSTIE: We're remembering journalist and documentary filmmaker, William E. Peters who died May 28th at age 85. Jane Elliott is a former teacher and now a lecturer on discrimination. She joined us from member station KUNI in Cedar Falls, Iowa. Thanks for being with us.

Ms. ELLIOTT: Thank you for having me.

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