Saturday, January 31, 2015

Museum Exhibitions Look Back At 1965 Civil Rights March From Selma to Montgomery, Alabama
Museums in New York and Washington are now showcasing mid-1960’s photographs and other objects related to the height of the civil rights movement in the South, an era somewhat fictionalized in the new film, Selma.

The New-York Historical Society’s show, “Freedom Journey 1965:  Photographs of the Selma to Montgomery March”, features work by Stephen Somerstein, a then 24-year-old City College student, who felt, he said recently, he had to document “what was going to be a historic event.”

The managing editor and picture editor of the newspaper at City College, Somerstein said that when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. “called on Americans to join him in a massive protest march to Montgomery, I knew that important, nation-changing history was unfolding and I wanted to capture its power and meaning with my camera.”

Thus, he accompanied the civil rights marchers on their three week (the actual completed march was from March 21-25), 54-mile journey from Selma to Montgomery, gaining unfettered access not only to King, but also to his wife, Coretta Scott King, Rosa Parks, James Baldwin, Joan Baez and Bayard Rustin.  As the marchers crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, they were attacked by state troopers and deputies on a day known as “Bloody Sunday”; when these actions were shown on television, they sparked protests that won support for the marchers’ fight.  In the summer of 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law.

Somerstein, who said he had “five cameras slung around my neck,” took some 400 photos on the march, of which 55 black and white and color images are on display at the museum.  Although he sold a few to The New York Times Magazine, public television and photography collectors, none were exhibited until 2010, when he participated in a civil rights exhibition at the San Francisco Art Exchange.

Among the images being shown at the museum are those of Dr. King addressing a crowd of 25,000 civil rights marchers in Montgomery; of folk singer Joan Baez, standing before a line of state troopers blocking the entrance to the state capitol; of white hecklers yelling and gesturing at marchers; and of families watching the march from their porches.

Somerstein later became a physicist, building space satellites at the Harvard Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory and Lockheed Martin; he revisted the Selma photos after his retirement in 2008, noting that he wanted “to have exhibitions of my work and . . . realized that I had numerous iconic as well as historical photographs.”

Somerstein’s exhibition will be on display through April 19.

Washington’s Newseum has a related exhibition, on display through January 4, 2016, called “1965:  Civil Rights at 50”, the final installment of a three-year, changing exhibition chronicling milestones in the civil rights movement from 1963, 1964 and 1965.

Shown here are the March 8, 1965 Dallas Morning News, with a front-page photo of civil rights leader John Lewis being beaten by a state trooper on Bloody Sunday; now a congressman from Georgia, Lewis retold this experience in his novel, March, also on display here.

Featured, too, are a March 1965 issue of Life magazine with photos of a bandaged protester, and other images of protesters marching to the state capitol in Montgomery for the then-largest civil rights rally ever held in the South.

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