The key to enjoying this 1984 WonderWorks drama is accepting what some people may find to be an unusual premise: that five children — three white, two black — could be good friends in a rural Mississippi town in 1964.
Such friendships existed, but they were not abundant — especially in towns like the one depicted in And the Children Shall Lead. The fictitious Catesville is a place where racial prejudice is ubiquitous, from the signs on the rest rooms (”Colored”) to the tone of white men’s voices. (When white Sheriff Connelly, played by Andrew Prine, speaks to a black person, he usually delivers a patronizing, condescending message.)
Rachel, who is 12 years old and black, is friendly with the sheriff’s daughter, Jenny, who is about the same age. They often pal around with three boys, two of whom are white, one black.
Prine plays his role with the tired resignation appropriate to a man charged with keeping order in a town shaken by the sudden appearance of civil rights workers. Pam Potillo is so natural, so poised, that her portrayal of Rachel seems practically effortless. Amanda Peterson, as Jenny, however, is stiff and less convincing.
Efforts to register black voters split the town to such a degree that parents order their children to avoid kids of the other race. Rachel and Jenny must then confront their own concepts of bigotry.
Danny Glover, LeVar Burton, and Beah Richards lend their considerable talents to this provocative production exploring the roots of racism. Parents ought to preview the film or watch it with their kids so families can discuss it together. B+