It took no more than thirty seconds.
Stephen Somerstein, a student at City College in New York City, snuck on stage with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as he addressed 25,000 marchers in Montgomery, Alabama. The black-and-white image he captured, Dr. King from directly behind and the seemingly endless crowd in front of him, soon became iconic.
It was 1965 and the whole world was watching. As President Lyndon Johnson enacted new legislation to desegregate the country, the southern state had yet to acknowledge African American’s right to vote. Soon citizens and civil rights leaders planned a peaceful march, from Selma to Montgomery, to bring national attention to the issue at hand. But things didn’t necessarily go as planned.
The first attempt, known as “Bloody Sunday,” resulted in 600 marchers being attacked by state troopers. As the events transpired, Somerstein, who was editor of his college paper, knew history was unfolding before his very eyes and the urgency at which to cover it. So he, along with many other students from the area, hopped on buses and headed down to join the march. By the time he arrived, “Turnaround Tuesday” had already taken place, seeing some 2,500 people march to the site of the previous beatings to pray before turning back (a ban had been placed on the protests). But, throughout the final phase—a 5-day-march to the state capital—Somerstein caught all of the action and pivotal moments of the historic movement. And they can all be seen at his latest exhibition, Freedom Journey 1965: Photographs of the Selma to Montgomery March, now on view at the New York Historical Society.
Here, the iconic image of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. speaking to civil rights marchers at end of the Selma to Montgomery march. The image has been used as promotional material for the 2015 award-winning film Selma.