Stephen Somerstein was a 24-year-old college student when he photographed Martin Luther King Jr and the 1965 Selma to Montgomery, Alabama march that changed the course of civil rights in the US.
Fifty years later, as the deaths of unarmed black men at the hands of white police officers spark protests and the film Selma, about King’s role leading the march wins acclaim, Somerstein’s photographs are the focus of an exhibition marking the anniversary.
“All through the march I was thinking, ‘This is history in the making. Can I capture it? Can I give a sense to other people of what I am experiencing myself?’ That was the thread that always wove through the back of my mind. Am I up for the task?” Somerstein, then picture editor of the student newspaper at City College of New York, said.
Freedom Journey 1965: Photographs of the Selma to Montgomery March, which runs at the New-York Historical Society until April 19, is proof he was.
In dozens of photographs, Somerstein documented much of the march with photos of King, his inner circle, marchers, police and the hundreds of people in small towns who viewed history in the making from their front porches and sites along the route.
“I turned my camera most consciously to the people watching the march. It was meant to free them. The march was meant to give them voting rights. The march was meant to change their lives,” he added.
The black-and-white and colour photographs in the exhibition are a fraction of the 400 Somerstein took after setting off in mid-March by bus from New York, like thousands of other young people at the time, with five cameras and more than a dozen rolls of film.
“Instead of looking in, Stephen looked out,” said Marilyn Satin Kushner, the curator of the exhibit. “These are great photographs of a very historic moment.”
I wanted the pictures to be a window for people to look back in time and see what it was like then. I needed to capture a sense of their vision
Somerstein, now 74, quickly realised the enormity of what King was trying to accomplish.
“I wanted the pictures to be a window for people to look back in time and see what it was like then,” he explained. “I needed to capture a sense of their vision.”
Among Somerstein’s favourite photos is an iconic image of King, taken from behind as he addressed a sea of 25,000 people in Montgomery, and another of people listening intently with their heads bowed, concentrating on what he was saying.
“I said to myself this is really remarkable, just being there at that moment,” recalled Somerstein, a retired physicist who never gave up photography.
While walking along the highway he spotted a multigenerational black family seated on a hilltop under a sign that read ‘Things go better with Coke’, which Somerstein considers among his best images.
He captured author James Baldwin smiling, singer Joan Baez in front of the state capitol with a phalanx of troopers on the steps behind her, a young black teenager with the word ‘vote’ written across his forehead and King surrounded by microphones.
Four months after the historic march, president Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
“He was a man of that time,” Somerstein said of King. “We can only hope that some similar individual will come our way to take us through the next set of problems and travails that society always encounters.”
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