Can You Identify This Image?

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?

9 comments… add one
  • Kevin Levin May 7, 2008 @ 9:04

    Brett, — Thanks so much for passing on the reference.

  • Brett May 6, 2008 @ 23:23

    Obviously this is no longer relevant, but I did find a link that says that the dome of the Massachusetts State House was painted black during WWII:

    (Search for the word “blackouts”, it’s about two-thirds of the way down the page.) So this sort of thing was done, at least sometimes. However, the State House’s dome was gilded and so was a lot shinier than the Captitol’s dome.

  • Kevin Levin May 6, 2008 @ 11:51

    Thanks everyone for the tips. It looks like it is indeed post-WWII; even one of my students suggested as much after finding a few images. I never knew the Capitol building was stripped down to its iron at that time. Very intersting.

  • Bill Bergen May 6, 2008 @ 10:12


    Actually, I can date it more exactly: Spring, 1960. The Capitol’s dome, which is not masonry but steel and iron, was repainted then, and they had to strip away many years of paint and re-prime it.

    I found partial confirmation in this news article:

    I found a partial confirmation here:

    As for the demonstration, I suspect it had something to do with the Civil Rights Act of 1960 which survived a filibuster to strengthen slightly the Civil Rights Act of 1957.

    Now I wish I could tell you this was all because of my minute knowledge of the U.S. Capitol (which is extensive), but I must confess that I rely on human memory. The Capitol dome as seen here is the scene I recall when I first looked on it as a youngster some 48 years ago. All the black-and-white pictures from that May vacation show the Capitol looking like this.

    The blackout theory is a good one, but I know of no instance where a building was painted black. The main defense from air attack on our shores was lack of ambient light.


  • Heather May 5, 2008 @ 12:11

    The dome is made of cast iron, apparently (I had no idea!) and is the second dome to grace the building. The new dome was completed around 1863.

    Take a look at the picture that’s third from the bottom on the left side of the Architect of the Capitol page. It’s from 1959, but I haven’t found a reference yet to the painting (repainting?) of the dome. There is a reference within the text to continued repairs on the dome between 1958-1962.

  • Kevin Levin May 5, 2008 @ 11:28

    Thanks Heather. Was the Capitol Building still pained black that late? I assumed the photograph was taken during WWII because of the paint.

  • Heather May 5, 2008 @ 11:17

    I think I’ve found a photo from that same day or similar here; 6th row from the top and last photo on the right, # BE025512. The caption reads: Civil Rights Demonstrators Praying Near Capitol Building
    Students from Howard University gather near the Capitol Building to pray as Civil Rights legislation goes to the senate on March 2, 1960.

  • Kevin Levin May 5, 2008 @ 10:15

    Thanks Heather. I will give it a shot.

  • Heather May 5, 2008 @ 10:06

    While the image doesn’t immediately look familiar to me, the cover credits the photo to UPI/Bettman Newsphoto. The Bettman Archive is now owned by Corbis, and you might be able to find the image through them with a bit of luck. Do you think that it bears similarity to the third photo of this search result?

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