'Road to Freedom' photos span 50 years of racial division

The 'We Shall Overcome' civil rights-era photo exhibition at the Fahey/Klein Gallery at times feels current

In 1965, Stephen Somerstein was a 24-year-old student photographer in New York City when he boarded a chartered bus rolling toward Selma, Ala., where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was about to lead a march of 25,000 to demand voting rights for African Americans.

The nonviolent protest from Selma to Montgomery was in response to an earlier march of more than 500 halted by state troopers wielding nightsticks at the Edmund Pettus Bridge, beating protesters back on a day soon labeled Bloody Sunday.

"I had to go home and tell my mother I was leaving for Alabama, which turned her head a little bit," Somerstein recalls.

The pictures he brought back captured vivid moments in American history and are included in "We Shall Overcome: Documenting the Road to Freedom," a collection of civil rights photographs at the Fahey/Klein Gallery through May 2. Somerstein's pictures share space with equally dramatic work by Danny Lyon, Steve Schapiro and Flip Schulke.

In one image, Somerstein stood behind King on the podium in Montgomery to reveal the faces listening to his speech — expressions of great seriousness, hope and emotion. He photographed white hecklers along the way and local African Americans watching the marchers and the media.

"The nature of visual symbolism was very preeminent that day," he says.

Schapiro covered the Selma march for Life magazine, part of a series of assignments during the civil rights era. His most chilling and heart-wrenching picture is from inside King's Memphis hotel room after he was assassinated in 1968, an excruciatingly private scene with coffee cups scattered around the room, an open suitcase left behind with a book inside titled "The Strength to Love," as a nearby television reported on his death.

Lyon, a young member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, photographed from within the movement, documenting sit-ins and protests; arrests in Atlanta; a cop in Mississippi grabbing his crotch for the camera; and separate drinking fountains for blacks and whites.

The Fahey exhibition comes at a time of heightened awareness, not only from the 50th anniversary of King's march and the acclaimed film "Selma" but also as Baltimore, Ferguson, Mo., and other American cities grapple with conflicts across the racial divide.

"You have to look back at history as a touchstone," Somerstein says. "It doesn't give you all the answers, but it gives you the confidence that there were difficulties in the past, they were resolved, and perhaps we can do the same now."

Schapiro points to one of his Selma photographs in the Fahey collection of a woman holding a sign reading: "Stop police killings." "Which is as appropriate today as it was then," Schapiro says. "We have made changes, and certainly the right to vote and the change in the laws of the country have made it easier for our existence in a complex world."

At times on assignment, Schapiro experienced his own sense of dread and hostility. After three Mississippi civil rights workers went missing in 1964 (later found dead), he was the first photographer sent into the town of Philadelphia, Miss., where the case was centered.

"I saw this big burly sheriff there, and I started taking pictures. He came up to me, he took the camera out of my hands, opened the back of the camera, pulled out the film, threw it out on the ground," Schapiro says. The man was Neshoba County Sheriff Lawrence A. Rainey, who was indicated but ultimately acquitted in connection with a conspiracy related to the killings. "I was very lucky," Schapiro says.

In Selma, Schapiro captured a woman watching from an office window, a Confederate flag hanging from the floor above. A favorite photograph of his captures a crowd divided by race lining the sidewalk during the march, as one white man seethes with anger.

Back then, more writers than photographers turned up to report on the movement. Photographers were free to roam, and images of dogs and fire hoses turned on protesters transformed national public opinion.

"The dogs in Birmingham was a horrific experience," Schapiro said. "At the same time, there was a feeling in the movement that it was one of the photojournalistic moments that really inspired a country — in a similar way that perhaps Ferguson has done today."

It was also a time before photography was seriously collected, so the lasting significance of the images was of little concern beyond documenting the historical events.

"Your main interest at that time was whether your pictures would get into the magazine the next week, and you never thought beyond that," says Schapiro, who returned to Selma this year to photograph President Obama's speech at the Pettus bridge. "You never thought that these pictures would be around 50 years from now and people would really want to look at them."

In recent years, that interest sent him back to reexamine his original proof sheets. He discovered a photograph somehow overlooked in all the decades since: a panoramic image capturing thousands of marchers being led by King and his lieutenants in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference — Ralph Abernathy and Andrew Young — plus future Congressman John Lewis, who was beaten on the first Selma march. In the gallery, the picture is presented in a 2-by-5-foot cinematic print.,

"It was an amazing find," Schapiro says. "No one is posing for a camera. Everyone is into their own world, and everyone has a degree of seriousness."

Schapiro noticed something else. "I started looking at these pictures of Martin Luther King, and there was always something in his eyes as if he looked like he was scouring the crowd, aware that at any moment something disastrous might happen to him. He was receiving death threats every day."

At the same time, many of Somerstein's pictures reveal smiles of joy among protesters as the Selma march unfolds.

"It was a very cheerful time, though we knew danger. Not too many days before, people had been murdered," Somerstein says.

"The whole gathering of people from across the country really energized everyone. This was not just a small group. This was tens of thousands of people coming together, of all races, marching together for voting rights. They took great pleasure in knowing there were strangers who came from across the country to join them."

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'We Shall Overcome: Documenting the Road to Freedom'

Where: Fahey/Klein Gallery, 148 N. La Brea Ave., Los Angeles

When: Through Saturday

Info: (323) 934-2250, faheykleingallery.com

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