Using Photographs to Teach Social Justice | Exposing Racism

Photographs can sometimes capture important moments in American history. This lesson is part of the Using Photographs to Teach Social Justice series.
Grade Level


Activities will help students:

  • analyze the time period of a photograph to gain a greater understanding of history
  • explore issues of racism, stereotypes, and bias
  • explore how photographs can expose racism
Essential Questions
  • How can photographs capture a moment in history?
  • What significance do historical photographs play in the present?
  • Why is it important to understand the context of a photograph?


Photographs can sometimes capture important moments in American history.

The photo below shows one member of the Little Rock Nine, a group of African American students attempting to enter a school that had previously been racially segregated. This followed the momentous 1954 Supreme Court ruling that ordered the end of segregated public schools. In the picture, Elizabeth Eckford, the black student, is carrying her books and trying to go into the school as Hazel Bryan Massery shouts at her from behind. Examine the photograph below.


(Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS.)



  1. Examine the photo. With a partner, write a list of hypotheses about the photo. Use these questions to guide you:
    • Who is the young woman ahead of the crowd carrying a book?
    • Why does the crowd behind her seem angry?
    • What do you think is happening in this photo?
    • What else do you notice about the photo?
  2. Now learn about the real origins of this photograph.
  3. As you read, take notes to answer these questions:
    • Who are the subjects of the photo?
    • What do you think the photographer was thinking when he took this photo? Why do you think that?
    • What major events in the United States were taking place when this photo was taken?
  4. Now compare your prediction list with your notes. Discuss any similarities and differences with your partner.
  5. Another historical photo was recently found. Experts believe that this photo was taken around 1860 and shows two children who may have been enslaved. Read Rare Photo of Slave Children Found.
  6. Compare the two photographs. Work with a partner to discuss the following:
    • What is the time period of each photo? In what ways are the time periods of these photos similar? In what ways are they different?
    • Both photographs expose some element of racism. How?
    • How are the subjects of each photo similar? How are they different?
    • How are the historical events surrounding each photo similar? How are they different?
  7. Record your ideas about what is similar and different in these photographs in a Venn diagram. Then share your Venn diagram in small groups. Are there similarities and/or differences that you didn’t pick up on that others did? Add the ideas of your group to your Venn diagram to form a complete analysis.
  8. One thing that both photos have in common is that they capture moments in history. Go back to two of the Essential Questions for this activity:
    • What significance do historical photographs play in the present?
    • Why is it important to understand the context surrounding a photograph?
  9. Turn and talk to your partner to answer these questions. Use the following prompts to guide you:
    • How does knowing about a photo’s time period and location help you to figure out what is going on?
    • How can you learn about history from a photograph?
    • What lessons from these photographs can be applied to your life today?

Share your insights with the class.

Teaching Tolerance collage of images

Welcome to Learning for Justice—Formerly Teaching Tolerance!

Our work has evolved in the last 30 years, from reducing prejudice to tackling systemic injustice. So we’ve chosen a new name that better reflects that evolution: Learning for Justice.

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