You most likely know that the landmark 1954 Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education ruled that racial segregation in U.S. public schools was unconstitutional. You may also know that the decision ordered states to desegregate “with all deliberate speed.”
Less talked about is the 1969 decision in Alexander v. Holmes County Board of Education, which, after years of obstruction by many states through the 1950s and ’60s, ordered that racially segregated schools must immediately desegregate. In other words: You know what we said back in 1954? We actually meant it.
Some of the ramifications and subsequent events are captured in two complementary documentaries from the PBS “American Experience” series. “The Busing Battleground,” directed by Sharon Grimberg and Cyndee Readdean, explores the long buildup to and catastrophic results of busing in Boston, by which students were bused to schools outside their neighborhoods in an effort to desegregate the public school system. Busing saw the city explode in violence and exposed the ferocity with which residents were willing to defend ethnic neighborhood borders. It premieres on Sept. 11.
“The Harvest,” produced by the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Douglas A. Blackmon and the Oscar-nominated filmmaker Sam Pollard, takes Blackmon back to the small Mississippi town where he grew up, where he was part of the first local class of integrated students to matriculate from first grade to high school. It premieres on Sept. 12.
The films arrive at a time when many of the hard-fought gains of desegregation have been reversed and when some schools, according to a report released in May by the U.S. Department of Education, are more segregated than they were before courts intervened. Both underscore what has changed — and what hasn’t — in the almost 70 years since Brown while also questioning tidy presumptions.
“These two stories are in conversation with each other,” said Cameo George, the executive producer of “American Experience.” “In some ways they’re almost counterintuitive, because we are all accustomed to thinking that integration in the South was violent, and in the North communities were much more open and progressive. By putting the films together, it just challenges your assumptions in a really interesting way.”
Both films also grapple with an unavoidable question: Why has the process been so difficult?