Using Photographs to Teach Social Justice: Confronting Unjust Practices


Activities will help students:

  • define ”unjust practice” and question why some inequities persist despite the fact that they are against the law
  • understand how color, light and shadow contribute to a photograph’s meaning
  • evaluate the effectiveness of photographs as a form of communication

Essential Questions: 

  • What are “unjust practices”? How do people protest injustices that might not be against the law?
  • How do photographs show these protests?
  • How do photos compare with other kinds of communication?

Some injustices are mandated by law. Others exist either because they are not specifically outlawed or because they persist despite the fact that they are illegal. The first category of injustice is called “de jure”—sanctioned by law. The second group, injustice that exists “in fact” albeit not by law, is called “de facto” injustice.

The American civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s took on both kinds of injustice. Students who sat in at lunch counters challenged Jim Crow laws that made segregated public facilities legal. They were protesting against de jure segregation, or segregation that was allowed by law. Other activists protested against segregation that was against the law, but that persisted nonetheless. In 1961, segregation of interstate bus travel was illegal. But in the South, interstate buses and bus stations continued to segregate black people and white people. Despite the fact that segregation was against the law, challenging it was dangerous.

In 1961, the Freedom Riders, an integrated group of college students, boarded buses in Washington, D.C. and headed south. Their aim was to challenge de facto segregation. Because segregation on interstate buses was against the law, they wanted the federal government to enforce that law if segregationists challenged their right to ride the buses together. In this lesson, students analyze a photograph from the freedom riders’ protest.

1. The handout defines two terms: “de facto segregation” and “de jure segregation.” Working with a partner, take turns explaining the definitions and discuss them to be sure you understand what they mean. Make a class T-chart on chart paper, with a column labeled “De facto Segregation” and a column labeled “De jure Segregation.” (Note: Distribute sticky notes so that each student has one or two.) With your partner, draw on your knowledge of American history, textbooks or the Internet and come up with one or two examples of each type of segregation. Write each example on a sticky note and put it on the class chart in the appropriate column. (Note: Read the examples that students have posted, asking after each one if it is in the correct column. To ensure all students participate, consider thumbs up for yes and thumbs down for no. When there’s a discrepancy, encourage further discussion: Why or why not?)

2. One instance of de facto discrimination was the segregation of interstate buses. The Supreme Court ruled in Morgan v. Virginia in 1946 that such segregation was illegal. Read about Morgan v. Virginia or watch a video about it. With a small group, answer these questions about the case and its impact:

  • What law did Irene Morgan break?
  • What did the Supreme Court rule in Morgan v. Virginia?
  • What practice did the ruling outlaw?
  • Why did segregation continue on interstate buses?

Based on your knowledge of Morgan v. Virginia, explain why the Freedom Riders’ actions were an example of protesting de facto segregation.

3. With this understanding of de facto segregation and the civil rights movement, look at photograph A. It was taken in Anniston, Alabama on May 15, 1961 after a white mob attacked the bus and its riders. Read the relevant section of this web page to learn more about the Anniston attack.


Photograph A: Bettmann/CORBIS. Click here for caption.

Read the questions below and write down short answers to them. Then, with your group, take turns answering the questions. Each student in the group will share an answer to one of the questions.

  • Describe the photograph.
  • Based on the photo and your knowledge of the events at Anniston, describe what happened before the photograph was taken.
  • What is most shocking to you about the photo? What makes it shocking?
  • The photograph is black and white, as were most photos at the time. How does that affect you as a viewer? How might you respond differently if the photo were in color?

4. Return to what you read about the Anniston attack. Compare the description of what you read and the photograph, using a Venn diagram. When you’re done, list with your group what is valuable about each type of communication. Use your list to contribute to a class discussion based on this question: How do photographs compare with written communication?

5. Although the civil rights movement succeeded in ending many forms of discrimination, some still exist. Choose one of the following forms of de facto discrimination: racial profiling, anti-Muslim discrimination or linguicism (discrimination based on a person’s language or accent). Research your topic, using at least three sources. Present your findings in a poster or web page. Include one or more relevant photographs and a statement about what makes this an example of de facto discrimination.

Extension Activity: 

Study Photograph B and read the caption.  


Photo B: Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS. Click here for caption.

1. Discuss the following questions:

  • In what case did the Supreme Court rule that segregating schools was illegal? When was that ruling?
  • Describe the photograph. How is it related to the Supreme Court ruling?
  • The photo from Anniston shows what happened to people who were protesting segregation. What is the person in this photo protesting? What, if anything, surprises you about the photo? Why does it surprise you?
  • The photograph is black and white, as were most photos at the time. How does that affect you as a viewer? How might you respond differently if the photo were in color?

2. This photo shows someone who was resisting the movement for equal rights. Think about today’s equal rights movements—for example, the movement for marriage equality, transgender equality or the movement to pass the Dream Act. What kinds of resistance have people in those movements faced? Find a photograph that shows that resistance. Write a caption for the photograph. Present your photo and caption to the class.