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WITHOUT THE IMAGES, the protracted fight for American civil rights is an abstract notion. The legal outcomes are tangible, but the untenable measures undertaken by countless foot soldiers in the pursuit of racial justice are brought into sharp relief through the powerful photography capturing the era.

Much has been made of “Selma” being snubbed by the Oscars, with nominations for Best Film and Best Song, but none for Best Director (Ava DuVernay) or Actor (David Oyelowo). Just as shortsighted is the Academy’s failure to acknowledge the film’s masterful cinematography (Bradford Young), from the visual impact of pivotal singular moments to the breathtaking crowd scenes that dramatize the 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery, Ala.

Led by Martin Luther King Jr., the mass demonstration demanding enforceable voting rights for Black Americans compelled President Lyndon B. Johnson to sign the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Organized by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the five-day, 54-mile march took place from March 21-25, with potential threats of violence looming every step of the way. Photographer Stephen Somerstein was embedded in the crowd on the last day. A 24-year-old night school student at City College of New York, he traveled to Alabama to document the march for the student newspaper. A contingent of students from his school headed South to participate in the march and he intended to chronicle their experience.

“I clearly remembered feeling outraged by the violent police response to the peaceful civil rights protest marchers in Selma, Alabama,” Somerstein said in an interview with the New-York Historical Society. “When Dr. King called on Americans to join him in a massive protest march to Montgomery, many students immediately organized to travel down to Alabama and join him. I knew that important, nation-changing history was unfolding and I wanted to capture its power and meaning with my camera.”

“I knew that important, nation-changing history was unfolding and I wanted to capture its power and meaning with my camera.”
— Stephen Somenstein, New-York Historical Society

Somerstein ultimately trained his lens on the wider moment, capturing images of the 25,000 marchers who braved the journey to the capital city, Black families who had a front-row seat witnessing the historic procession from their porches and white crowds who jeered from the roadside.

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Young civil rights marchers with American flags march in Montgomery, 1965 | Courtesy Stephen Somerstein

When marchers arrived at the Alabama State Capitol, Somerstein made his way to the stage where King delivered his profound “How Long, Not Long” speech. From this prime vantage point, he photographed King and other major civil rights figures who led the march, including James Baldwin, John Lewis, Rosa Parks, A. Phillip Randolph, Bayard Rustin and Coretta Scott King.

Many photographers were on hand shooting the major news event. Somerstein’s images are particularly artful. With five cameras hanging around his neck, he took nearly 400 photographs that day. Some of the march scenes in the film “Selma” bear a remarkable resemblance to the images he captured, as does the poster advertising the motion picture.

More than 50 of his stirring photographs are on view at the New-York Historical Society. “Freedom Journey 1965: Photographs of the Selma to Montgomery March by Stephen Somerstein” is a rare presentation of the historic black-and-white and color images, which were first exhibited in San Francisco in 2010. CT

Freedom Journey 1965: Photographs of the Selma to Montgomery March by Stephen Somerstein @ New-York Historical Society | Jan. 16 – April 19, 2015

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Martin Luther King, Jr. Looks out at crowd in Montgomery, 1965 | Courtesy Stephen Somerstein

Stephen Somerstein: “One of the most moving moments etched into my memory was when I stood behind Dr. King to photograph him from the rear as he was speaking before 25,000 marchers. After carefully framing and capturing the image I looked beside him and into the sea of faces. As I concentrated on individuals, I saw how utterly transfixed the people were by his words. Some had put their hands over their eyes so as to focus solely on his message.” (New-York Historical Society)

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Two mothers with children watching marchers, 1965 | Courtesy Stephen Somerstein

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Folk singer Joan Baez in Montgomery, Ala., 1965 | ourtesy Stephen Somerstein

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Hecklers yelling and gesturing at marchers, 1965 | Courtesy Stephen Somerstein

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“Things Go Better With Coke” sign and multi-generational family watching marchers, 1965 | Courtesy Stephen Somerstein

Stephen Somerstein: “The first time I seriously reflected on the potential impact of the march was when I encountering the multi-generational family arrayed before the smiling lady of the “Things Go Better With Coke” sign, I realized what a beautiful image it was. Yet on seeing the family’s serious faces, in the midst of taking this iconic image, I knew that our march was terribly meaningful for their future and would have profound consequences.” (New-York Historical Society)

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At center, John Lewis (then a Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee leader, now a U.S. congressman from Georgia) links arms with nuns and members of the clergy at the head of the march, 1965 | Courtesy Stephen Somerstein

TOP IMAGE: Marchers on the way to Montgomery, Ala., as families watch from their porches, 1965 | Courtesy Stephen Somerstein