Indianapolis' Black Expo
Selma photographer captures 'heart' of march in single frame, hopes images spur next generation of civil rights activists
July 14, 2015
Click. In one flash of a shutter, Stephen Somerstein captured the heart of a movement – 25,000 people standing in the spring sun of Montgomery, Alabama, listening to Martin Luther King Jr. preach a doctrine of nonviolence just days after a failed march in Selma, Alabama, ended in bloodshed.
It was summer 1965 and a 24-year-old Somerstein had spent the day covering the third march from Selma for his college newspaper, but he wasn’t satisfied with ending the day on a stock photograph of King speaking at a pulpit, an image that could have been taken anywhere at any time, he said. Instead Somerstein walked past the row of professional reporters with their cameras pointed directly at King, looking to take the same photo that could be confused with any of King’s various other speeches.
Instead he maneuvered himself behind King to catch a shot of the crowd as they listened intently to King's words.
“I could feel the dynamism in the air that people were carefully entranced by Dr. King,” Somerstein said, remembering the day clearly even though more than 50 years have passed since he looked down his camera’s viewfinder at the civil rights icon.
“I took one picture… because it shows people enthralled and many of them their eyes were turned away so they could hear him and not be distracted by his visuals. Some people would look away or they would cover their eyes or bend their heads just so they could hear his words better.”
That image - the iconic photograph showing King from behind, arms raised, standing on the steps of Alabama’s State Capitol Building as he delivered his “How Long, Not Long,” speech to the roughly 25,000 protest marchers - will be among the collection of Somerstein’s photographs that are being auctioned at Indianapolis’ Black Expo Summer Celebration. The silent auction ends July 19 with all proceeds going to IBE and its college scholarship programs.
Somerstein will be at an Indiana Black Expo reception Thursday and spoke by telephone about his memories of that summer.
It has been 50 years since Somerstein left his City College of New York campus with a busload of fellow students to cover the last leg of a march to give equal voting rights to all races, which had already failed twice before; the first ending in bloody beatings and mass arrests of young protesters and the second ending in a prayer on the bridge in Selma leading to the highway. He was interested in the student groups who were going south to help register voters and work with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, but when he had the chance to meet up with the marchers in St Jude, Alabama, he knew he had the chance to document history in the making.
Somerstein arrived in St. Jude, where a small black college had been chosen as the staging area for the final leg of the march. Armed National Guard soldiers stood as a phalanx between the marchers and those on the outside, Somerstein said, some who would like nothing more than a repeat of Bloody Sunday, as the first Selma march would come to be known.
He spent the day darting back and forth between the front and midsection of the marchers, trying his best to capture in a single photograph what the march was all about.
“You can always take pictures of the front of the march, of the leaders, but it was the people in the back that were foot soldiers, that are so important and the people who the march is directed to,” he said. “It was a documentation of a unique situation that had never happened before. We had never had this massive civil rights march – with people from all across the country – and [I’m] trying to put that into the images so that people would see these images and recognize them for what they were.”
What “they,” were, he said, is documentation of a moment in history when people, black and white, young and old and from all religions came together to make the world a little better.
“I saw young kids who had been on the first march and I said, ‘This is who the march is for. If this march changes the direction of the south or anywhere in the country [changing] who could have the right to vote, then the real effect is going to be on the younger generation.,” Somerstein said. “I knew if voting changed, many other things would come along with that and part of their lives had potential to be much better.”
Just a few short months after the march, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law, guaranteeing the right to vote for all Americans, regardless of color.
And with that, other than running a couple photographs in his college newspaper and selling a few photographs to national news agencies, Somerstein retired the photographs, and the mountains of history trapped in their frames, to a folder in his file.
“Over the years I would bring them out once in a while, trade them once in a while and sell a few but I had no real desire to go full time,” he said.
He hadn’t actually gone to college for photography; instead he graduated with a degree in physics, making a career working on satellites and telescopes.
It took nearly 50 years for him to reach back into his file and pull the images out; only doing so after a fellow photographer urged him to enter some of his work into a civil rights exhibit at the San Francisco Art Exchange in 2010. When the director saw his work he was elevated from a random entry to the principal artist.
In the next few years, his work would find its way into the New York Historical Society and the Smithsonian History Museum. Finally, his Selma photographs were compiled into a traveling exhibit that has snaked its way across the country, ending its tour in Indianapolis.
“That is how the Black Expo essentially heard about my work and found out about my traveling exhibition,” he said. “And we thought it was a great idea and set this whole thing up to allow them to auction off the images to raise money for their own organization.”
The interest in his work has been “marvelous,” he said. But it’s not only because his images are beautifully shot, although he isn’t too shy to brag, but because the photographs were able to capture a moment in time when, “people banded together to try to create a better world.
“They immediately recognize it as extraordinary; the image creates a resonance in people of perhaps a better time or of a time of great promise, of great hope,” Somerstein said. “It’s like a picture of [President Abraham] Lincoln - people, say ‘Oh I want that photograph to remind me of the promise that has not quite been fulfilled yet, but the hopes is that it will happen,’ and my pictures are iconic in that sense.
“I hope it remains meaningful as [the younger generation] grows… I hope that they can make those changes more effectively than they had been in the past. And if my pictures give them a stimulus that they can move forward in that direction I… did a better job than I may have thought at the time.”
To bid on the photos, follow the links at indianablackexpo.com.
The photos may be seen on exhibit in the Cultural Arts Pavilion, inside the Indiana Convention Center, Friday to Sunday.