Sunday, May 15, 2011

MAY 17, 1954: BROWN vs BOARD OF EDUCATION DECIDED

Brown Sisters Walk to School, Topeka, Kansas, 1953. Photograph by Carl Iwasaki

Linda Brown (L), the 10 years old, who was refused admission to white elementary school, and her 6-yr-old sister Terry Lynn walking along railroad tracks to bus which will take them to segregated Monroe Elementary School.

Carl Iwasaki's assignment for LIFE magazine was to photograph the Brown Sisters starting school during the time of the Brown vs. Board of Education trial. This essay ultimately was one of Iwasaki's most poignant and significant. The remarkable photograph of Linda Brown and her younger sister walking to school is one of the more iconic photographs representing the early civil rights struggles of the 1950s. Recently, Iwasaki, now 87,  remarked about this photo, "I distinctly remember tagging along with Linda and her sister on their 20-minute walk to school. I spent two days on the assignment and recall that it seemed curious that there was virtually no other photo coverage of the Brown family. I had a hunch as I worked that I was covering a history-making story."

In this landmark court case, Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Earl Warren delivered the unanimous ruling that State-sanctioned segregation of public schools was a violation of the 14th Amendment and was therefore unconstitutional. Handed down on May 17, 1954, the unanimous (9–0) decision stated that "separate educational facilities are inherently unequal."

This historic decision marked the end of the "separate but equal" precedent set by the Supreme Court nearly 60 years earlier and served as a catalyst for expanding the civil rights movement during the decade of the 1950s and paved the way for significant opportunities for African Americans in our society—especially for equal justice, fairness and education.


Japanese-American Carl Iwasaki took up photography as a middle school student and began receiving assignments for the student newspaper and yearbook as he entered high school. His development, though, was interrupted when he and his family were forced into a prison camp in Wyoming by the War Relocation Authority. This arm of the government was designed to protect American soil during WWII from potentially dangerous Japanese infiltrators and locked thousands of people up for no other reason than their race.

While the experience was not a pleasant one, it did put Iwasaki in line for his first commission. Upon his release, in 1943, he was hired to take photographs for the WRA, chronicling life inside the camps and the relief experienced upon release. Working from Denver, he took over 1300 photographs for the project and gained enough on-the-job training to pursue a full-time photography career after the war. Iwasaki worked for Life, Time and Sports Illustrated, often drawn to stories about the marginalized and disenfranchised; his photos of the civil rights movement are some of the most affecting.