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.