Two new films from AMERICAN EXPERIENCE that examine the deeply mixed legacy of America’s efforts to racially integrate public schools in the 1970s uncover shocking truths.

The documentaries play out in two communities, The Busing Battleground in Boston and The Harvest in Leland, Mississippi, but they tell a story that the whole nation shared, said Cameo George, executive producer of AMERICAN EXPERIENCE.

Cameo George
Cameo George
Meredith Nierman

“These two films—one taking place in the urban North, the other in a small Southern town and both nearly 20 years after Brown v. Board of Education (1954) made school segregation illegal—challenge our perception of how communities across the country dealt with the Supreme Court ruling,” said George. “This was an experiment in every community across America,” she said. “No one knew how it was going to turn out.”

Both films reveal in heartbreaking detail that the experiment failed.

“Today, our largest metropolitan schools are just as segregated as they’ve always been, maybe more so,” said George. “We’re clearly not where we thought we would be all these years later, and it’s complicated to think about that. What should we have done differently? Are there lessons that we should be applying now?”

Using eyewitness accounts, oral histories and rare news archives, The Busing Battleground, directed by Sharon Grimberg and Cyndee Readdean, viscerally captures the class tensions and racial violence that met the court mandate to use busing to end school segregation. The film allows those who lived through the events on both sides of the color line to share their experiences now with the hindsight of five decades.

“Media coverage of the unrest shapes Boston’s reputation across the country to this day,” said George. “We didn’t want to make an exploitative film that just shows sensational scenes of the awful violence in the streets. We wanted to bring new dimensions to the story.”

Viewers of The Harvest will encounter some hard truths, said Douglas Blackmon, the film’s writer and co-producer who has spent his career wrestling with what he calls “the fundamental paradox of our time.”

“America is the most racially egalitarian, mixed-race society that has ever existed in human history,” he said. “And yet we’re a tinderbox of conflicts. Why is that?”

His film, about his experience in his hometown of Leland, including being the only White member of the high school basketball team, is part of his quest to answer that question.

“A story like this needs to be told—maybe only can be told—by people who have a sense of grief over what might have been,” said Blackmon, who wrote the Pulitzer Prize-winning Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II. His new film is co-produced by Peabody and Emmy award-winning Sam Pollard.

As a first grader in Leland’s first integrated classroom, Blackmon had a front row seat on his town’s historic court-ordered mandate to end segregated schools. His film follows Black and White citizens in the cotton town from the first day of first grade through high school graduation. As it captures how his classmates and the town were changed, the film reveals America’s collective failure to replace segregation with diverse, shared educational experiences for all.

George said she was stunned to learn that neither the Black nor White communities in Boston supported the busing solution that rolled out in 1974. “Students—whether they were Black or White—were going from their own, underfunded, under-resourced neighborhood school to another under-resourced and underfunded school,” she said. “All of the students were losing—they were fighting over scraps.”

In Leland, where there was broader support for mandated segregation in 1969, integration efforts were more successful in the short term. “In Leland, because the children started so young, they didn’t have all the racial emotional baggage,” said George. “The adults remember simply playing together on the playground, not even knowing they were part of a momentous ‘first.’ They didn’t have the weight of that.”

While the films focus on just two cities, they evoke our shared history.

“I think you’re not going to be able to watch these two films and not reflect back on your experience,” said George.

The Busing Battleground premieres on Monday, Sept. 11 on GBH 2 and The Harvest can be seen on Tuesday, Sept. 12 at 9pm on GBH 2. Learn more and view previews here.