In 2015, New-York Historical hosted the exhibition Freedom Journey 1965, which highlighted photographer Stephen Somerstein’s powerful images of the 1965 Selma to Montgomery Voting Rights March. The protest marked a watershed moment in civil rights history and led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act just months later. During the five-day, 54-mile protest, 25,000 brave individuals—including luminaries like Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, and Bayard Rustin—risked their lives to participate in the march.
At the time, Somerstein was a 24-year-old physics major and photo editor of the City College newspaper. As events unfolded, Somerstein dropped everything and arrived in Alabama on the last day of the demonstration. His images capture an often untold side of the Civil Rights Movement: the range of profound human emotions experienced by demonstrators and on-lookers, opponents and leaders alike. Alongside the photos below, the photographer describes the scene in Montgomery on March 25, 1965.
Young civil rights marchers with American flags march in Montgomery, 1965. Courtesy of Stephen Somerstein.
“This was an historic occasion. A civil rights march unlike any other march before or since. A mass gathering from across the country to march for voting rights for the disenfranchised. Once word had gone out from Dr. King for people to join the march, I had less than a day to prepare my camera equipment, film, and gear and join the buses heading for Alabama.”
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Looks out at crowd in Montgomery, 1965. Courtesy of Stephen Somerstein.
“During Dr. King’s speech, I had been photographing him from various angles from the press area in front of the speaker’s platform. Yet I was unsatisfied with not being able to gather together in one photograph the powerful persona of Dr. King and his effect on the 25,000 people raptly listening to his words. Turning around and looking at the sea of onlookers, I could see that he had captured them in that moment. I realized that only a view from his perspective on the platform would give me an image that would combine the two concepts.”
Hecklers yelling and gesturing at marchers, 1965. Courtesy of Stephen Somerstein.
“For most of the march, the on-lookers showed emotional restraint. But in the city, a few rowdy young white hecklers showed their disdain for the marchers and played to the camera with catcalls and obscene gestures.”
Man with an American flag and marchers walking past federal troops guarding crossroads, 1965. Courtesy of Stephen Somerstein.
“Several thousand U.S. Army troops were arrayed in a movable protective phalanx, tracking and moving parallel to the long line of marchers along Route 80, the road to the state capital in Montgomery. At one of the road intersections, where the army had set up their jeeps to block cross traffic, I found a slight rise to position myself to sight down on the military, the shoulders of the onlookers, and the flag-bearing marchers.”
Two mothers with children watching marchers, 1965. Courtesy of Stephen Somerstein.
“I saw this scene with mothers and their children at a distance, but did not move in closer. I took the photograph with my 135 mm telephone lens so as to not disturb the arrangement or make them aware of the camera. After taking the photo, I thought for a moment that I’d hoped that the babies would grow up into a world far more open and receptive to them than the one that existed at that moment.”