The nation celebrated slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr.?s birthday in January, but there?s still plenty of time to view poignant images from a five-day period in 1965 when he and countless other protestors marched from Selma to Montgomery on a journey for equality.
On display now through April 19 at the New-York Historical Society Museum & Library, ?Freedom Journey 1965: Photographs of the Selma to Montgomery March? by Stephen Somerstein is an arresting, photographic account of the historic march told through the eyes of everyday people who were victims and witnesses of those brutal days of Jim Crow.
The variety of images is extensive, ranging from children walking with the flag to white hecklers in the street mocking the marchers to the elderly watching from their front porches. Just 24 years old at the time, Somerstein was granted access to photograph Bayard Rustin, James Baldwin, Rosa Parks, Coretta Scott King and Dr. King himself.? ?
Presented by the New-York Historical Society Museum & Library and the Center for Black Literature at Medgar Evers College (CUNY), the collection includes 46 black & white and color photographs and pays tribute to the 50th anniversary of the march.
At the press reception at the Museum, which took place on January 15 and included opening remarks by Harry Belafonte, Somerstein spoke with TNJ.com about what he encountered as a photographer during those deadly, but memorable five days.
TNJ.com: How did you decide to photograph the march?
Stephen Somerstein: At the time, I was editor of my college newspaper at City College in NYC and we had been covering stories about Mississippi Summer and students had gone down to the south. So when the events in Selma started unfolding -the beatings, the effort to march for voting rights, John Lewis being attacked by the police, which is essentially what the march was about, this immediately brought the attention of the students who wanted to go down and march with Lewis. And when Dr. King, shortly after, called nationwide attention to this, he would invite people from around the country to join him. We knew we had to go to Alabama. Within hours, we had packed, gotten the cameras and film, and marched to Port Authority to go south.
TNJ.com: As you took pictures, what were your impressions of the march?
S.S.: When you?re in the midst of a historic event, you have to tell yourself that it?s a historic event. There are no externalities. You see it unfolding before you and you say to yourself, ?This has never happened before. This is a significant change in American history.? And how it plays out, we don’t know. But we know we?re doing the right thing [in taking photographs] at that time.
TNJ.com: How did this exhibit come to be?
S.S.: It?s a rather interesting and involved story but to make it simple, a friend of mine twisted my arm around 2010 to get my work out there because a gallery in San Francisco wanted to have a civil rights exhibition. That was the first time I actually printed this work from 50 years before.? And curiously, right after that, I got a call from City University of New York (CUNY) and they wanted to know if I had photographed Dr. King at City College?s commencement address in 1963 where he gave the introductory remarks. In going through that, they found out that I had covered the march in 1965 and they said, ?We would like you to have an exhibit at the executive suite for the chancellor and the media department at CUNY.? And it was at that place when I had the exhibit there when the president of the New-York Historical Society, Louis Mirrer, came by and saw the exhibition and said she wanted it for the Museum. And that was the beginning.