Montgomery in March, 1965, Reconsidered:
The Perspective from the Other Side of the Lens
This week’s blog is a companion piece to my previous post on the fiftieth anniversary of the Voting Rights Campaign in Alabama. Both blogs have provided a great opportunity for the AFC to share examples of Glen Pearcy’s singular photo documentation from the front lines of the freedom struggle in Montgomery from March 15 to 19, 1965. Glen’s reflections below on his experiences in Montgomery help draw a frame around the scenes he photographed during those dramatic days. He also offers an interesting self-critique of his fledgling documentary skills and approach to documentary photography.
The initial response to the call to help put names to faces in the photographs has yielded some interesting results. Emily Martin, Communications Strategist and writer at Carlow University, Pennsylvania, very promptly reached out to us after the previous post and identified a young woman in a couple of the photographs as Harriet Richardson, then a student at Juniata College, Pennsylvania (thanks, Emily!) Another “find” was the noted poet Galway Kinnell bleeding from a beating at the hands of police on horseback who attacked and dispersed the protesters. Kinnell was the poet in residence at Juniata College in 1965 and went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for poetry (1982); he died in October 2014 at the age of 87.
As for Glen’s recollections of the time and place fifty years ago, here are his comments from an interview (via email) I conducted with him recently (Glen’s responses are in block quotes throughout):
Glen, what are the most indelible memories for you from that trip? What images come to the surface when you think back to March 1965?
Three memories, directly connected to the photographs: First, as I recall, SNCC (the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) held mass meetings daily at the Jackson Street Baptist Church in Montgomery. As a white middle-class kid who grew up in St. Louis and, at the time, was privileged to be a student at Harvard University, this was my first exposure to southern black culture and the civil rights movement. The combination of the energy of the latter and the music of the former made a deep impression on me. While you can’t hear the music, I hope my 1965 photographs of SNCC singers in the Jackson Street Church capture the energy of “The Movement.”
Second, while Dr. King and the SCLC [the Southern Christian Leadership Conference; Dr. King was President] were organizing the march from Selma to Montgomery [March 23-25, 1965], SNCC was marching on the Alabama Capitol in Montgomery every day demanding voting rights for black citizens. And every day a variety of police, state troopers and deputies or volunteers in plain clothes blocked the streets to the Capitol and turned the marchers around, preventing them from delivering their demands to Governor George Wallace.
True to their name, the SNCC marchers were a mixture of students – predominantly black and white. Many of the whites had come down from the North - I think most of the black students were from the South. Sometimes the police got violent, attacking the students with clubs and threatening them from horseback.
[Ed. Note: Signs carried by demonstrators identify them as students from the University of Michigan, Harvard University, Antioch College, Georgetown University, University of Massachusetts, Alabama State University, and the University of Pittsburgh, among others. Emily Martin’s article about the experiences of students from Mt. Mercy College (the original name for Carlow University) in the demonstrations attests to the participation of students from educational institutions large and small: http://www.carlow.edu/12448.aspx. Also noteworthy is the presence of large numbers of clergy.]
The third memory is that on one of the days of the protests, whites from the area organized a counter-march. This was my first exposure to southern racism. The sometimes casual, sometimes angry, but uniformly blatant, racist exhibitions shocked me. Clearly, I wasnʼt in Kansas anymore.
How do you assess the extent to which your photos capture the historical and political context of the voting rights actions?
As far as coverage goes, I did not shoot much of the march from Selma to Montgomery (March 23-25). This is arguably a major shortcoming. However, everyone else – all the major newspapers and television networks – was covering the events in Selma and my two colleagues and I were reporting on the largely ignored SNCC demonstrations in Montgomery. But, fifty years later that may make my photographs more rare.
How does the Voting Rights Campaign in 1965 figure in terms of your subsequent career and life work? Did you begin to think differently about what you wanted to do when you witnessed these amazing scenes in Alabama and later when you came back to Cambridge? Or was it really all that big a deal? (Sorry for the leading question!)
The Selma experience influenced my wife, Susan Due Pearcy, and me to work with the Southwest Georgia Project a few years later; the project developed out of SNCC’s organizing principles to commit to do work at the grass-roots level. We were recruited by Charles Sherrod, the Projectʼs director, while I was doing graduate work at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. We spent two years in Georgia (1967-68), and our exposure to the legacy of slavery and evils of Jim Crow and the courageous struggle of ordinary people for basic justice were pivotal experiences in our lives.
[Ed. note: From its inception in the early 1960s the Southwest Georgia Project has tackled issues like school desegregation, welfare rights, voter rights, education, housing, land loss by African American farmers, and attaining economic self-sufficiency for the rural, black residents in and around Albany, GA. The Civil Rights History Project features online interviews with individuals who worked on several such Project initiatives, including Shirley Sherrod, Clifford Browner, Sam Young, Jr. and Robert McClary.]
We went on to work with Cesar Chavezʼs United Farm Workers [in the 1970’s], where I began my career as a filmmaker. I subsequently made films for labor unions and a variety of social justice and public interest organizations.
[Ed. Note: Glen Pearcy’s documentary film materials and photo documentation of the Southwest Georgia Project is housed in the American Folklife Center (afc2012040); he subsequently directed a film about the UFW’s actions against grape growers in California, Fighting for Our Lives (1975), which was nominated for the 1976 Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature.]
Looking over your photography from Alabama, what strikes you about the images … are there specific things about the aesthetic/technical dimensions that draw your eye to them?
Risking immodesty, looking at these photographs fifty years later I am pleased with how well they hold up. I like the composition, and am pleased to find that the photographer had a good eye. Likewise, I am gratified the technology of black and white photography from fifty years ago holds up so well. But then, the same is true of Matthew Bradyʼs Civil War photographs. Which means the medium and technology have served us well for over one hundred fifty years.
One thing I think has changed is the style of shooting. By today’s standards I think I took very few photographs. I learned documentary photography in the “Cartier-Bresson school”. Henri Cartier-Bresson was a French photographer who championed the “decisive moment” approach. As he once noted: “To me, photography is the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event as well as of a precise organization of forms which give that event its proper expression.” I think today’s digital photographers are more likely to shoot many more frames, and search for the decisive moment later in the editorial process.
What would the Glen Pearcy of 2015 and veteran of several thousand shots later advise the Glen Pearcy of 1965 to do differently?
Surprisingly, not much. I am pleased to find I like the eye of the younger man. I still compose images much the same way today - that constancy surprises me a bit. Again risking immodesty, rather than feeling I haven’t grown much in that regard, I am instead gratified I had that eye from the start.
Did you ever think about publishing these photographs – as a coffee table book or in another format or in other venues?
No, I donʼt…itʼs not the kind of thing that pops up on my radar screen, which is a significant shortcoming, I guess. Iʼd be happy to hear any ideas you might have in that regard!
That seems as good a stopping place as any, so I will conclude by requesting former students, community members and other participants in the Selma -Montgomery demonstrations in 1965 to please take a look at the photo gallery – your or someone you know may be among the faces that Glen Pearcy photographed fifty years ago! And let us know who you or they are in the comments section below.
NOTE: As we receive identifications of individuals, like Harriet Richardson and Galway Kinnell, we will update the photo gallery pages with their names – the link to the page(s) is immediately above.
Thank you, Guha Shankar, and the Civil Rights History Project of the Library of Congress for preserving these photographic treasures for posterity.
Thanks also to photographer Glen Pearcy for recording and preserving the images of the organizers and participants, whose courage and activism so dramatically changed the history of our nation.
Thank you Richard, I know Glen Pearcy appreciates the comments and the LC is very happy to be the home for his collection.
Thanks for preserving this defining moment of our nation’s history. You were at the right place, at the right time and recorded it all for future generations to study.
On a technical note, the photographs seem to have a pleasingly uniform print quality. We’re these new prints made expressly for the collection?
Thanks for the compliment, however there were no prints made at all. We scanned directly from the 35mm negatives to digital files (tiffs), and what little “correction” to the photographs is to adjust the curves in a photo editing program to even out the tones for public display. Oh, and they were also rendered as jpegs and scaled to fit the constraints of mobile devices and computer displays.
And yes, you are very correct in thanking Glen Pearcy and many other courageous documentarians who carry out such invaluable work in many danger zones.
I remain amazed by the discovery of these photographs, It is as if they’ve been waiting for the 50th anniversary of the March on Selma to make their appearance. Astonishing sense of timing. a glimpse of the past. A beautiful & poignant reminder of the brave students & how power yields ever so reluctantly. A truly inspiring visual journey. Thank you Dr. Shankar for posting them & bringing them to light. I thoroughly enjoyed reading your interview with the photographer. Great questions!
Thank you very much, I know Glen Pearcy, the photographer, will be most gratified by the comments. And the interview, such as it is, could not go wrong, given the incredible materials and the great back-stories by their creator. Regardless, the compliment is most appreciated and its nice to hear from patrons who appreciate the images and know the context.
Photo: Students on the March. Willie Ricks of SNCC is in the front row. I believe he was assigned by SNCC to organize and lead the march
Thank you, Maria! Can you confirm that you are referring to the young man with sunglasses in the right side of the picture. I believe he is also seen in this other image: afc2012040_063_07.jpg – which is in the photo gallery – //www.loc.gov/folklife/civilrights/events/Montgomery65-gallery2.html?loclr=blogflt. Please take a look and see what you think. Right clicking on the file makes it a little easier to see. Best.
What an extraordinary collection of photos for use in the classroom. They convey so much of the people’s history. Thank you for making them available at a time when teachers are introducing the history of Selma and the voting rights rights struggle to their students, inspired by the 50th anniversary, the feature film, and the current challenges to voting rights.
Thank you Deborah! We are very gratified to know that our colleagues at Teaching for Change and the Zinn Project are giving us two “thumbs up” for making our collections available. We are always interested in making the national library’s collections speak to issues of concern for the public and to provide the best reference materials for our patrons, virtual and actual.
Unfortunately, the only unidentified person I recognize is myself, the guy holding the arm of the injured student in afc2012040_046_41.jpg
Thank you very much, Mr. Carcione! We are grateful for the identification. We hope to update the gallery page with more such information in the future. Perhaps at some future date you would be willing to share your memories of experiences in the freedom struggle. We would all be grateful.
I would hope, as expressed in an earlier comment on this blog, that some day these amazing photos will find their way into text books on American history. The quality of the photos has such an immediacy, it’s hard to believe that 50 years have passed since they were taken. Thanks to Glen Pearcy for this collection, and to the Library for bringing it out. Most of all thanks to the blood, sweat and heart of the marchers!
Thank you for the viewing and the insightful comments. The text book idea is a good one. Hope someone takes up the suggestion.
The nun in photo: arc 2012040 046 08 is Sister DeLellus from Mount Mercy College.
Dear Liz Douglass,
Many thanks for identifying Sister DeLellus. Were you there at the time yourself?
Thank you for sharing these wonderful photographs. I am still awed by all the people of Montgomery who endured so much before and after we marchers went home. And it was a never-to-be-forgotten education for us.
In the Photograph labeled “Galway Kinnell flanked by students after police charge,” the young woman to Kinnell’s right/the viewer’s left is Toni Merlo from Mount Mercy College (now Carlow University). Another friend remembers Toni saying that when organizers found out that Toni was a nursing student, they asked her to help at one of the first aid stations.
Dear Catherine McClenahan,
Great story! Thanks so much for your note. Have you been able to spot yourself in the pictures… admittedly a tall order, but a couple of your cohort have already identified themselves as showing up in the photos.
Barbara K. O’Connor (King)
April 7, 2015 at 5:27 pm
The nun in the picture is Sister De Lellis from Mount Mercy College Pittsburgh, Pa and the young woman in the foreground is me. I was a junior nursing student at Mt. Mercy when I participated in the demonstration on March 16 in Montgomery. I feel privileged to have been involved in an event that eventually led to such historic legislation. Democracy is fragile and we must continue to uphold the ideals outlined in our Constitution.
I’m so pleased to see that there is a photographic archive. marching was a trans formative experience for me and helped to shape my views and actions in the years ahead.
Thanks for sharing these timely and wonderful photos and interview excerpts.
Elizabeth Gritter, Ph.D.
Thank you Liz. Hope all is well and keep letting us know how we are doing.
I married the student that Kennell has his arm around in the ninth picture in 1968. Her name was Merrily Konopka and the student to her left Is Barbara Getsy Palso who was maid of honor at our wedding in Fords NJ. Merrily passed away nearly 12 years ago of pancreatic cancer. Her daughters and granddaughters were pleased to see the pictures. Thank you
Thank you for the comment. That’s a great memory and we are grateful for your contribution of the identification of your wife and her friend to the national record.
My mom, Merrilly Medd, is on Kinnell’s left-hand side in the photo of him bleeding. She was a student at Mt Mercy. I remember her mentioning that she had gone to these marches, but I never asked any questions as a kid, which I regret. She passed away in 2003, so I treasure this. Than you!
I was surprised and happy to see Glen Pearcey’s wonderful pictures of Civil
Rights activity in Montgomery,Alabama in March of 1965.
I was even more surprised when I saw that I was in 2 of the photographs taken.(041 and 067) The pictures need to be amplified to make me identifiable but they were clearly me marching in front of a Montgomery Police Station and in the next to last row of the Jackson St. Baptist Church. Sitting next to me on the right side was
Richard Wagner, a friend who like me came down to Alabama from the University of Pittsburgh. On the other side was another friend Barbara(King) O’Conner (Not visible) from Mt, Mercy College We rode the bus together from Pittsburgh. I had glasses on and was dressed in dark clothes including a Pitt sweat shirt worn inside out on the advice of local people who advised us against advertising our cities of origin in the north.
My picture had surfaced once before . That was in the Life magazine of March 26, 1965,, it was taken on March 16th, the day the sheriffs rode their posses into our nonviolent march for voting rights, trapped us against residential porches and beat us with clubs and canes. I wrote my personal account of going to Montgomery almost 3 months ago . and submitted it recently as an article for my union newspaper. It should be published in the next two or three weeks.
Dear Mr. Becker, I will be happy to provide you photos with greater detail in them – larger image, that is. Barbara O’Conner also identified herself in another image so we are getting a lot of names attached to faces in your cohort. Our respect and gratitude for the brave contributions you and your friends made to the freedom struggle all those years ago.
My father was in this march. He continues to support civil rights. He was an advisor with the Juniata College group and was attacked and injured by mounted troopers. His picture was taken while he was knocked out and again by Mr. Glen Pearcy when being escorted by the State Police. He was humble about this all his life and continues to feel more must be done for civil rights for all.
Dear Mr, Witt, We appreciate your insights and interest in the post, and especially your father’s courage in standing up for freedom and equal rights, then and now. If you could identify the image(s) in which he’s depicted that would be terrific – we will add that information to the files. Thanks to you both.