This year marks the 50th anniversary of the 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery Civil Rights March, a five-day protest that drew more than 25,000 marchers and changed the course of civil rights in America.
On view now at the New York Historical Society, The 1965 March: Stephen Somerstein Photographs Freedom’s Journey from Selma to Montgomery features the work of a then 24-year-old City College student, who felt he had to document “what was going to be a historic event.” From March 21 to March 25, 1965, hundreds of people marched to protest against the resistance that groups like the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) had encountered while trying to register black voters.
“When Dr. King 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,” Somerstein said in a statement.
As he walked the 54 miles from Selma to Montgomery with thousands of others, Somerstein–who was then the managing editor and picture editor of the City College newspaper–took 400 black and white and color photographs. “I had five cameras slung around my neck,” he recalls.
The 55 images on view convey the hope and courage of the protesters and the violent opposition they faced: white hecklers taunt marchers; folk singer Joan Baez stands smiling before a line of state troopers blocking the entrance to the State Capitol; families look on at the marchers on rural roads from their porches; parents and children march with American flags. Somerstein captured images of Coretta Scott King, Rosa Parks, James Baldwin, and Bayard Rustin, and, finally, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., addressing a crowd of 25,000 in Montgomery, Alabama. Three months later, President Lyndon B. Johnson would sign the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Somerstein went on to pursue a career in physics, building space satellites. Though he sold a few of his historic photographs to the New York Times Magazine, public television, and photography collectors, the majority of his work remained unseen until 2010, when he participated in a civil rights exhibition at the San Francisco Art Exchange.
And now, coinciding with the film release of Selma, the images still prove vital in a climate of a reignited race war. Juxtaposed with images of this year’s nationwide protests of the shootings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, they’re sad reminders of how history repeats itself, but also images of encouragement, visual tokens of the power of demonstration to affect change.
The 1965 March: Stephen Somerstein Photographs Freedom’s Journey from Selma to Montgomery is on view at the New York Historical Society until April 19, 2015.