This will be my last full week of teaching before a few days of review and the final exam. My survey classes are reading through parts of Harvard Sitkoff’s The Struggle For Black Equality and they seem to be enjoying it immensely. The book does an excellent job of getting beyond the high-profile figures and moving to the complexity of what took place on the ground in various places. Organizations like SNCC and CORE receive a great deal of coverage and I am especially pleased that Sitkoff emphasizes the fact that the civil rights movement was in large part a youth movement. I can’t tell you how often I hear from my students that there is nothing they can do in the face of perceived injustices because they cannot vote. They simply throw their hands in the air in frustration or are already too cynical to even consider the possibilities of activism. When we discuss desegregation in the wake of Brown v. Board of Education I show my students a fairly large number of photographs of young black teens walking between angry mobs of white people into the public schools. I simply ask my students to consider the images and ask themselves whether they would have had the courage to engage in such behavior.
We’ve heard quite a bit of late about how little our children know about major figures in American history, but it
seems to me that we fail to understand the past if we don’t also give them a sense that some of the most significant changes cannot be understood simply from the top-down, but must be acknowledged as the work of ordinary people who risked everything. The decision of the Supreme Court and the reluctant decision of various individuals, including President Eisenhower, to enforce the court’s ruling around the country would have meant very little if ordinary Americans did not step forward.
Now to the reason for the post. When we first started I had my classes analyze the image on the book cover. It’s a wonderful image, but unfortunately, I have been unable to identify the scene. We worked to put some of the pieces together. We discussed why the Capitol dome had been painted black and came to the conclusion that it must have been an attempt to camouflage it during WWII. The crowd of African-Americans was much more difficult, but by the time we discussed it they had read the first chapter which covered the period between 1900 and 1954. So I asked what a crowd of black Americans might be holding in front of the Capitol building during WWII. The consensus was that they were holding copies of Franklin Roosevelt’s Executive Order No. 8802.
Given that this is just a guess can anyone identify the image?