On January 16, the New-York Historical Society will open Freedom Journey 1965: Stephen Somerstein Photographs from Selma to Montgomery. This exhibit features the stunning and historic photographs of Stephen Somerstein, documenting the Selma-to-Montgomery Civil Rights March in January 1965. We spoke to Mr. Somerstein about traveling to the march, the art of photography, and being present at a history-changing event.
What were your initial thoughts when you first became aware of the march?
I was editor of MAIN EVENTS, one of the City College of New York newspapers. Back in March 1965 everyone was watching the news programs on TV as this extraordinary tableau paraded across the screen, where I clearly remembered feeling outraged by the violent police response to the peaceful civil rights protest marchers in Selma, Alabama, who were attempting to march to the state capital in Montgomery. This unprovoked intimidation galvanized many students in our school to action. When Dr. King called on Americans to join him in a massive protest march to Montgomery, many students immediately organized to travel down to Alabama and join him. I knew that important, nation-changing history was unfolding and I wanted to capture its power and meaning with my camera. I immediately got in touch with the local organizers to determine the travel logistics, went home, packed an overnight bag, some sandwiches, my cameras, and all the film I could round up, then told my mother I was heading for a date with history in Alabama.
Are there any moments during the march that particularly stand out to you?
The first time I seriously reflected on the potential impact of the march was when I encountering the multi-generational family arrayed before the smiling lady of the “Things Go Better With Coke” sign, I realized what a beautiful image it was. Yet on seeing the family’s serious faces, in the midst of taking this iconic image, I knew that our march was terribly meaningful for their future and would have profound consequences. We would be gone in the next days, proud that we had come, yet all too safely home. I worried and hoped that our efforts would bear good fruit and what we left behind would grow into something better for them.
One of the most moving moments etched into my memory was when I stood behind Dr. King to photograph him from the rear as he was speaking before 25,000 marchers. After carefully framing and capturing the image I looked beside him and into the sea of faces. As I concentrated on individuals, I saw how utterly transfixed the people were by his words. Some had put their hands over their eyes so as to focus solely on his message.
What do you feel you learned from participating in the march?
For someone, such as myself, who thoughtfully considers and weighs before committing to action – to have lept into the unknown for this worthy cause is a marvelous and cherished memory.
Why do you think the New-York Historical Society is a fitting venue for the work?
By virtue of its own name the museum is a venue to display the historical contributions of New Yorkers to the City and to the world, who have created works that have had a profound and enduring influence on the rest of the world. From its earliest founding as New Amsterdam, this city has been a constantly churning amalgam of creative, energetic “can-do” spirit, who see tolerance and acceptance as a necessary part of a successful and vibrant business and social culture.