It was IMMENSELY controversial when it first appeared, in national television, in the '70s.
Ms. Jane Elliott's "brown eyes, blue eyes" experiment in 1970 (the third one after her first in 1968). This "Eye of Storm" documentary was made by William Peters in 1970 for ABC News and later included in the documentary "A Class Divided" (1985), which included a class reunion (of 1984.)
The most telling moment is when Russell used "brown eyes" as a derogatory term to call John name, only a couple of hours through. Though, the experiment was too short to allow it to get to the point when a "brown-eyes" person does so to another fellow "brown-eyes" person.
While there are variations of the story, the exercise Elliott developed for her third grade class in Riceville, Iowa was a result of Martin Luther King’s assassination. According to one biographer, on the evening of April 4, 1968, Elliott turned on her television to find out about the assassination. One scene she says that she remembers vividly is that of a (white) reporter, with the microphone pointed toward a local black leader asking "When our leader (John F. Kennedy) was killed several years ago, his widow held us together. Who's going to control your people?" She then decided to combine a lesson she had planned about Native Americans with the lesson planned about King for February’s Hero of the Month. To tie the two, she used the Sioux prayer "Oh Great Spirit, keep me from ever judging a man until I have walked a mile in his moccasins."
The following day she had a class discussion about the lesson, and about racism in general. She later said: "I could see that they weren’t internalizing a thing. They were doing what white people do. When white people sit down to discuss racism what they are experiencing is shared ignorance." She states her lesson plan for that day was to learn the Sioux prayer[clarification needed] about not judging someone without walking in his/her moccasins and "I treated them as we treat Hispanics, Chicanos, Latinos, Blacks, Asians, Native Americans, women, people with disabilities."[clarification needed]
The original idea for the exercise came from Leon Uris's novel Mila 18, published in 1961, about the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. One of the ways the Nazis decided who went to the gas chamber, according to the novel, was eye color.
Because most of Elliott's 8-year-old students were, like her, born and raised in a small town in Iowa, and were not exposed to black people outside of television, she felt that simply talking about racism would not allow her all-white class to fully comprehend racism's meaning and effects.