Rhetoric, Memory, and a Brown v. Board of Education Victory Photo, Plus Random Thoughts

In my classes, I regularly emphasis analysis of cultural artifacts. Today we started our discussion about the Civil Rights Revolution. I briefly mentioned that Brown v. Board of Education (1954) is used as a “historical stand-in” case per se for all cases that ended segregation. In other words, we frequently say the Supreme Court made segregation illegal in Brown. They only made it illegal in the field of public education. We covered this and a few other historiographical issues.

We also discussed this fascinating and iconic image.   


My question to the class was: What does the framing of this photo suggest? Why do you think this photo of all the possible photos might have come to be one of a few iconic photos?

The idea we discussed is that by having the physical structure of Supreme Court serve as the backdrop of this photo and by focusing on the woman holding the paper with the words “high court bans segregation” very visible, this photo gives all the agency to the SCOTUS, it says, “we [the SCOTUS] are going to let you have these rights.” This photo deletes long-term agency and grassroots activism by Blacks of all ages. Additionally, this photo is an “up shot” – in film that always signifies the person who has power and is superior. We should also recognize this photo has two females in it. Black males have long been feared. Altogether, the rhetoric of this photo does not serve to promote Black people per se. From a perspective of historical memory, that this photo continues to be used suggests we have forgotten true causes (including Cold War issues and Derrick Bell’s interest-convergence thesis), consequences, and troubled legacies of Brown – a case that resulting in anything but simple equality.

Justice and equality are (ironically) far from simple debates. Look at all the debates today. Why, oh why do so, so many Republicans hate gay and LGBT folks! If only they knew their history, or even the Constitution, or even had a heart. If only they knew, ideally, a person can’t use his/her rights to limit the freedom of another individual. Speaking of this, check out this excellent article – it’s a photographic history of male affection with really good basic information about the history of sexuality and sexual orientation and gender and how they are all social constructions. (Oh and you must watch Sorry Babe, You’re a Feminist!)

Lately, I’ve really been thinking about relationships between “History” and “Geography.” (Thanks for the challenge – you know who you are!) I’m working on including more geography in my history classes. One of the books for my Texas History students in the Fall will be this really neat historical atlas.

I’ve also been thinking about the connection between various notions of democracy and any other given variable, including geography, sex, gender, etc. For example, how does “democracy,” both the ideal and real, differ in 1700 v 1950 in New York City vs Georgetown, Texas? 

I leave you with this idea: People in the United States are so fixated on the illusion of freedom and fears of loosing it they don’t realize both how much and how little freedom they have AND how sad attempts are to limit the freedom of others.