FILM: Education and Incarceration?

FILM: Education and Incarceration?

Reviewed by Randall Burkett

Vol. 25, No. 1-4, 2003 pp. 13-14

The Intolerable Burden. Directed by Chea Prince. Produced by Constance Curry. Blue Stream Production Films, 2003.

Regular readers of these pages will be familiar with Constance Curry, whose prize-winning book Silver Rights (1995) chronicled the courageous battle by Mae Bertha Carter during the mid-1960s to gain an equal education for her children in the segregated public schools in Sunflower County, Mississippi. The troubling documentary film, The Intolerable Burden, directed by Chea Prince and produced by Ms. Curry, is required viewing for everyone moved by Curry’s account of Mrs. Carter’s struggles.

In the brief span of 56 minutes, the viewer is treated to a moving visual portrait of Mrs. Carter, a portrait that makes clear the determination, the wit, and the grit of this daughter and shaker of the Mississippi Delta. But the film does much more than that. Through four thematic segments–Segregation, Desegregation, Resegregation, and an epilogue, Education or Incarceration?–it concisely recounts the virtual abolition of Mrs. Carter’s accomplishments at the hands of a recalcitrant white power structure that refuses to this day to cede control of the public school system. Two of the current all-white school board members in Drew, Mississippi, including its chair, have held their seats since Mrs. Carter first challenged them, in spite of the fact that virtually no white students are now enrolled in Drew’s public schools.

Whites in Sunflower County and throughout much of Mississippi and the South have invested enormous resources in all-white private academies that leave the public school curriculums eviscerated, the physical plants deteriorating, and the economic base of the schools in shambles. The Intolerable Burden depicts these white

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academies–the underside of the much-touted private school reform movement–to be a bastion of Confederate hero worship and resegregation, the South’s “No, never!” that still resonates across the region and, indeed, much of the nation. Meanwhile, in the town of Drew itself, Main Street is boarded up, manufacturing has departed, real unemployment hovers above 25 percent, and young black males who remain in town have little else to do but get caught up in street life. The only growth industry is the nearby Parchman State Penitentiary, where far too many of Drew’s youth end up–including one of Mae Bertha Carter’s own grandsons.

Indeed, one of the most unnerving segments of this film is the epilogue, which demonstrates the parity between the dropout rates in public schools and the incarceration rates in the prison system. In Mississippi over the past four decades, the prison population for black males has increased nearly ten-fold, while the amount budgeted for prisons has skyrocketed to more than $240 million. As one of the many eloquent and thoughtful interviewees concludes, incarceration has ceased to be punishment and instead has become an industry that has taken on a life of its own.

The promise of progress through education in a single public school system, the bedrock of Mae Bertha Carter’s faith, appears to have become but another in a string of broken promises. Not only she and her husband but also her children paid an enormous price–psychological, social, and economic–for the education they received. While all of her children made it through high school and seven graduated from college, the prospect for the future of their own children, had they remained in the Delta, would be very bleak. The cost of the pernicious persistence of racism in our nation continues to mount for individuals as well as for our society as a whole.

This is a film on which to reflect, and then to act.

Randall K Burkett is curator of African-American collections in the Special Collections and Archives Division of Robert W. Woodruff Library at Emory University. For more information or to order a copy of The Intolerable Burden, call 800-876-1710 or visit