Selma to Montgomery Exhibit: A Must-See Ahead of Election Day

Photos by Spider Martin, courtesy of Birmingham Civil Rights Institute
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King lead a crowd of civil rights marchers through the streets of Montgomery, Ala., on March 25, 1965.

Courage, hatred, solidarity, brutality and alienation are caught in black and white in the exhibit, "Selma to Montgomery: A March for the Right to Vote: Photographs by Spider Martin" at the North Carolina Museum of History in Raleigh through June 4, 2017. Admission is free.

The exhibit is a powerful tribute to the work of those who peacefully marched and endured attacks by Alabama state troopers in 1965 so black Americans could have the right to vote. Martin (1939-2003), a photojournalist with The Birmingham News, walked with the marchers, capturing moments that turned international attention to the civil rights movement.

A large and diverse crowd of civil rights marchers cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, to protest for African American voting rights.

“He got his nickname, ‘spider,’ because he was a small guy — about 5 feet 2 inches and about 125 pounds — and he would use his physique to climb in the trees or on top of trucks, whatever it took, to get that special angle or shot, so that in the exhibit there are a lot of really unique angles,” says Earl L. Ijames, curator at the North Carolina Museum of History. “They are really unique perspectives of the civil rights marchers that documented the courage of the civil rights marchers and the brutality that they met.”

The 46 images transport viewers back to March 21, 1965, when more than 2,000 civil rights marchers attempted to make their voices heard by crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. They walked for five days to Montgomery, where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and his wife, Coretta Scott King, led them into the capital singing freedom songs. In the photos, we see the quiet resolve of the marchers — black and white, students, clergy, working men and women — who came from across the country. The exhibit also features photographs from March 7, 1965, known as “Bloody Sunday,” which was the first attempt to march from Selma to Montgomery, when Alabama state troopers tear-gassed and beat the demonstrators until they bled. That first march was organized by students as a protest after Alabama state troopers murdered Jimmie Lee Jackson, a black civil rights activist, while he was attempting to register voters the previous month.

U.S. Rep. John Lewis, then head of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in Selma, can be seen in one photo with other marchers during a confrontation by Alabama state troopers on “Bloody Sunday.”

“Right after that, when they refused to turn around, literally saying, ‘We won’t be turned around,’ they were beaten within an inch of their lives, and Spider Martin was able to capture those photographs and broadcast those photographs to the world, which led to public outrage across the country and the world,” Ijames says.

Other poignant photos include one of Jim Letherer, a cancer survivor with one leg, who marched the entire 54 miles on crutches and another of Dr. King speaking to about 25,000 people gathered at the Alabama State Capitol in Montgomery on March 25, 1965. Through his photos, Martin captures the tangible and allows it to reveal the intangible. An obscene finger jeering demonstrators from the sideline reveals rage; the sores on a marcher’s weary feet speak of perseverance.

Cancer survivor Jim Letherer (with crutches) marches the entire 54-mile journey between Selma and Montgomery, Alabama, March 21, 1965. Marchers holding flags keep pace with Letherer, who kept spirits high by chanting “Left, left, left.”

The sounds of hymns and freedom songs play in the background as visitors walk through the exhibit. The soulful music reinforces the images we see of patient persistence and a belief that evil can be overcome — as it was. Four months later, on Aug. 6, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 became law, giving all U.S. citizens the right to vote.

As Election Day approaches, this exhibit — curated and circulated by the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute — is a timely reminder of why we should show up to cast our ballot in every election. Take your teenagers to learn about the sacrifices of those who worked to ensure that all could have the opportunity to vote. But be warned: Some of the images in the exhibit are disturbing, and rightly so, because they show pain and suffering, as well as disdain for the rights of others. But along with capturing the dark side of humanity, Spider Martin also sent a message that resonates today and emphasizes the power of people of all races who work together to effect change. We also see the face of goodness.

Exhibit-Related Programs for Children

The North Carolina Museum of History is hosting two October programs for children to coincide with the exhibit. Register here

History Corner: History in Pictures
Wednesday, Oct. 5, 10-11 a.m.
Ages 6-9 (with adult).
$3 plus tax per child; $1 plus tax for associates/museum members.
For information, call 919-807-7988.
Tour two photo exhibits (photographs by Hugh Morton and Selma to Montgomery) and investigate the past through pictures.

History Hunters: Picture Perfect
Wednesday, Oct. 5, noon-2 p.m.
Ages 10-13.
$3 plus tax per child; $1 plus tax for associates/museum members.
For information, call 919-807-7988.
Arrive with your own digital camera or smartphone and learn some basics of good photography with Raleigh photographer Ray Pfeiffer, who will talk about using photos as historic records and help you take some pictures of your own. Afterward, see how you did in a show-and-tell review session.

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