Ava DuVernay’s Oscar-nominated drama “Selma” has given viewers around the world a striking image of violence against those protesting for voting rights during the 1965 Selma to Montgomery march. Her movie, the first biographical film about Martin Luther King, Jr. (played by David Oyelowo), drew on the rich source material on the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s surveillance of King and his family. But DuVernay’s powerful portrayal of the march had a predecessor, too. Jennifer Schuessler reported in the New York Times last weekend that the Briscoe Center for American History at the University of Texas has purchased the archives of photographer Spider Martin, who photographed the march — as well as the King family and later Alabama Gov. George Wallace while he was running for president.
Martin was unusual in capturing a complete record of the march, unlike photographers who covered the story only on individual days, Schuessler explains:
“I was struck by how many scenes in the film seem to have been structured based on Spider Martin’s photographs,” said Martin A. Berger, a professor of art history at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and the author of “Seeing Through Race: A Reinterpretation of Civil Rights Photography.” Most photos from Bloody Sunday show “a confusing jumble of bodies,” Mr. Berger said. But Mr. Martin’s famous images, he continued, offer “a clear narrative that seems to crystallize the stakes of the larger conflict.” Those photos distilled the chaos into a series of “legible dramas,” Mr. Berger said: a state trooper pointing toward a row of marchers just before the moment of confrontation; John Lewis falling to police clubs at the Pettus bridge; the wounded Amelia Boynton being lifted to her feet by fellow marchers.
I’m writing this from Savannah, Ga., where over the weekend, I was lucky enough to see an exhibition of reproductions of Martin’s photographs at the Ralph Gilbert Mark Civil Rights Museum. The images are powerful, both as a coherent narrative and for the way they capture individual moments. The photographs can be strikingly intimate. In the image of Boynton being carried after she was beaten, I was struck by the way Martin captured her disheveled hair silhouetted against the gray sky. It’s a stark illustration that violence against civil rights protesters didn’t just stop them from marching; it was intended to rob them of their composure and dignity, too.
But there’s humor and joy in the pictures, too — and occasionally a lesson for our own era. The image I photographed above, of the Kings enjoying a Sammy Davis Jr. concert, is lovely not because it is somber or because it captures an important historical moment. Rather, Martin caught the Kings at a moment of repose and pure pleasure. They aren’t tormented; they’re having fun. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a photograph of King where he’s smiling that wide, or where he seems quite so transported from himself and his role and obligations. It’s a wonderfully human moment.
There’s another photo that’s stayed with me since I saw the exhibit, one that feels all too relevant, given our present politics. It’s of a billboard that attempted to discredit King by presenting supposed evidence of his Communist Party credentials:
Those who would tar President Obama as a communist today may have more efficient megaphones for their charges, but photographs like Martin’s illustrate the ignominious lineage of this particular allegation. The billboard has an unintentional black humor to it: the fact that King is sitting with white men is meant to be shocking, casting both him and the white attendees as subversives. And even this supposedly explosive picture can’t take King’s dignity away from him. He’s the kind of guy who wears a white shirt and long tie to “Communist Training School,” a conservative among revolutionaries if ever there was one.
Whatever happens to “Selma” at the Academy Awards this weekend, DuVernay has done a service in bringing King and his colleagues to vivid life. And with any hope, the Briscoe Center’s acquisition of Martin’s wonderful photographs will continue the conversation “Selma” started, bringing wider audiences to Martin’s penetrating, deeply human look at this vital moment in American history.