Stephen Somerstein Photographs Revisit Civil Rights March at NY Historical Society; Actor-Activist Harry Belafonte Gives Opening Remarks
Black History Month, always a busy time for me, seemed even more so this year. While I certainly view every day as an opportunity to learn more about the contributions of African-Americans to the U.S. and the world, for Black History Month, I make a concerted effort to set a daily plan so that I can remember, honor, and share our history. One highlight for me this year: A photographic journey I took back in time to 1965 and a Civil Rights March in Alabama.
Watch Video Interview with Stephen Somerstein
I was at the preview of an exhibition of Stephen Somerstein's photographs, entitled, The 1965 March: Freedom's Journey from Selma to Montgomery, at the New York Historical Society. It's a photographic tribute to the 50th anniversary of the Selma-to-Montgomery March, with dozens of iconic images that capture the spirit of the Civil Rights Movement. What I found so powerful is that the photographs showcase the diversity of people who were on the front lines of the 1965 protest, as well as the people -- on the sidewalks or from their porches -- who came out to cheer the marchers on.
THE SELMA MARCH'S ICONIC IMAGES CAPTURED
I was able to see, up-close and personal, images of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., addressing the crowd of 25,000 civil rights marchers in Montgomery.
There were also images of folk singer Joan Baez, standing in front of state troopers blocking the entrance to the State Capitol; and images of white hecklers yelling and making gestures at the marchers.
Hundreds of marchers started in Selma, and by the time they reached the state capital in Montgomery, 54 miles and five days later, their numbers had swelled to 25,000. Standing on the steps of the State Capitol Building, Dr. Martin Luther King., Jr., delivered his now-emblematic speech, "How Long, Not Long."
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. addressing civil rights marchers in Montgomery, Alabama. Photo by Stephen Somerstein and part of the exhibit, The 1965 March: Freedom's Journey from Selma to Montgomery at the New York Historical Society
This is where he asks and answers, "How long? Not long, because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice."
How did such a massive gathering happen? Why did so many people join the March? And, how did they find the fortitude to march after "Bloody Sunday"?
March 7, 1965 is "Bloody Sunday." That's the day when – at the foot of the Edmund Pettus Bridge -- police tear-gassed, beat with Billy clubs, and slashed with whips those who were protesting, marching for their civil right to vote. I learned a good deal about the struggle and power of those "foot soldiers for justice," at the photographic exhibit, which showcased dozens of the 400 photographs taken by then 24-year-old Somerstein, a City College of New York (CCNY) student. But, what I learned weeks after I viewed the photographic exhibition is that Edmund Pettus was a Confederate general, a U.S. Senator from Alabama, and Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan.
How ironic. Fifty years later, thousands of people, including President Obama, will gather on March 7, 2015 to commemorate "Bloody Sunday." This year, I discovered anew the exceptional courage and resistance of the protestors: Following "Bloody Sunday," Martin Luther King, Jr., led another protest march two days later to cross the Pettus Bridge, but turned back at the Bridge. He wanted federal court protection for the marchers. Finally, on March 21, 1965, the protestors made their way to Montgomery by crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Five months later, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
While at the pre-opening reception, held to benefit the Center for Black Literature at Medgar Evers College, CUNY, I spoke with five people who were students at the time and heeded the call from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., to go south to help blacks register to vote.
People who heeded Dr. King's call to go south, when they were college students in 1965.
They told me what they experienced as young whites working, side-by-side, with blacks in the face of sometimes deadly resistance of Southern whites, in 1965. Today, they say their path to the fight for social justice began 50 years ago, when they journeyed south. I also talked with Somerstein at the reception -- which opened with remarks by actor-singer-activist Harry Belafonte. Somerstein told me that "it was time to share these historic images with the public."
"The 1965 March: Stephen Somerstein Photographs Freedom's Journey from Selma to Montgomery" exhibition will be on view at The New York Historical Society until Sunday, April 19, 2015. To learn more, visit the New York Historical Society's website.
CLOSING LINES: Snippets of MLK,Jr., "How Long, Not Long"
• "I know you are asking today, "How long will it take?" (Speak, sir) Somebody's asking, "How long will prejudice blind the visions of men, darken their understanding, and drive bright-eyed wisdom from her sacred throne?" Somebody's asking, "When will wounded justice, lying prostrate on the streets of Selma and Birmingham and communities all over the South, be lifted from this dust of shame to reign supreme among the children of men?" Somebody's asking, "When will the radiant star of hope be plunged against the nocturnal bosom of this lonely night, (Speak, speak, speak) plucked from weary souls with chains of fear and the manacles of death? How long will justice be crucified, (Speak) and truth bear it?" (Yes, sir) I come to say to you this afternoon, however difficult the moment, (Yes, sir) however frustrating the hour, it will not be long, (No sir) because "truth crushed to earth will rise again." (Yes, sir) How long? Not long, (Yes, sir) because "no lie can live forever." (Yes, sir) How long? Not long, (All right. How long) because "you shall reap what you sow." (Yes, sir)"
• "How long? Not long, because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.
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