Photo Exhibit Highlights Selma to Montgomery March

by JT Peters

November 9, 2014

There’s much to be said for recording events in the pages of history books in type and ink. But photo-journalist Spider Martin made sure that when people turn the pages of those history books back to the early summer of 1965, they won’t be focusing on the written word, they will see the images. They will see each of the 54 miles walked by Martin Luther King and thousands of nonviolent protestors between Selma and Montgomery, Alabama, burned in black and white on film.

Luckily, we don’t have to turn the pages very far to see the records of King’s hallowed journey ourselves. Selma to Montgomery: A March for the Right to Vote, at the Levine Museum of the New South until Feb. 22, 2015 as a part of the DestinationFreedom: Civil Rights Struggles Then and Now series, features 48 of Martin’s stunning photographs chronicling Martin Luther King’s defining interstate march.

On loan from the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, the traveling exhibit goes to great lengths to make sure that Martin’s photographs do the talking. Each of the images is placed deliberately, some forming small timelines from stop-action snapshots of happenings along the Alabama Highway. On the far right wall, we see what must have been a series of photographs taken over the span of 20 minutes, beginning with protestors hand-in-hand marching with King leading them in a confident prayer. We see Martin’s camera turn as we make our way down the gallery wall, from the vanguard of protestors to the parked squad cars of a Highway patrol battalion armed with teargas launchers and billy clubs. Minimal captions provide additional information, but viewers are left to soak in the tension created in this series, knowing the repercussions of the clash about to ensue as we watch through our window to 1965.

Thankfully, Martin didn’t just record the moments of struggle, he was there to photograph the moments of triumph, too. His compositions often feature the blissful exhaustion of embattled protestors. At the end of the march, during a rallying speech given by Rev. Ralph Abernathy, Martin makes sure to capture the still strident crowd, who seem to have energy to spare even after 54 miles of marching.

Martin was young at the time of the Selma march, but already a seasoned photo-journalist for the Birmingham News. His Selma photos, though, raised his profile around the world when they were published everywhere from Time, Life and Look to Der Spiegel, Rampart and Paris Match. King credited Martin’s photographs with playing a key role in the passing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, saying, “We could have marched, we could have protested forever, but if it weren’t for guys like (Spider), it would have been for nothing. The whole world saw (those) pictures.”

From that historical angle, it’s easy to appreciate the content of Martin’s photographs that feature the heroes of the Civil Rights Movement leading the masses on the right side of history. But Selma to Montgomery: A March for the Right to Vote allows us the opportunity to look deeper at each of his images. It quickly becomes apparent that Martin had a master’s eye for photo composition. Even in photographs taken in moments of unimaginable pressure and stress, the artist’s touch seeps into the glossy prints. This exhibit contains a critical mass of visually striking portraits and atmospheric scenes. Each shines a light on gross injustice while at the same time it focuses our attention on the fearlessness of those who fought for justice in Alabama in 1965.

This story was produced as part of the Charlotte Arts Journalism Alliance, with support from the Wells Fargo Foundation.

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