In remembrance of the Reverend Martin Luther King’s birthday, the Library of Congress and other federal agencies, will be closed on Monday, January 16th (to be faithful to the facts, the Reverend’s actual birthday is January 15, 1929). To commemorate the occasion, this blog draws from the American Folklife Center’s documentary collections to present selected images of Dr. King’s life work in the struggle for African American freedom and equality.
The American Folklife Center holds hundreds of terrific collections of first-person documentation of events, people and places that span well over a century. The Glen Pearcy Collection, 1965-1988, is unique among them for its intimate and often astonishing visual depictions of the civil rights era. One particular set of photographs from this wonderful collection (which has had little public circulation, so far) vividly depicts the historic Voting Rights Campaign in Alabama in March 1965. The dates for Pearcy’s documentation from the front lines of the struggle in Montgomery fall between the infamous events of “Bloody Sunday” on March 7 and the triumphant final march from Selma to Montgomery two weeks later. The set includes several images of Dr. King and some of his contemporaries in the civil rights Movement, including Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) members James Forman, John Lewis (currently a Congressional representative from Georgia) and the Reverend Ralph Abernathy. Many of Pearcy’s photographs of Dr. King capture him in the “iconic” mode as Dr. Carla Hayden, the Librarian of Congress, describes it. That is, Dr. King is pictured heading a protest march, at the height of oratory in church, and behind the megaphone at a public rally.
However, one of my personal favorites from Glen’s collection is this wonderful image of Dr. King caught in a full-throated laugh prompted by something that catches his ear during a night-time SNCC rally in Montgomery. It is astonishing because we so rarely see Dr. King portrayed in such an unguarded and open moment in a public setting.
Because of the contexts and actors they capture, Glen Pearcy’s photographs are crucial for our understanding of the complicated internal dynamics within and contradictions between the coalition of civil rights groups that comprised the Movement. In particular, there was the tension that characterized the relationship between more established organizations led by elders – Dr. King and Reverend Abernathy, for example – and the student-led organizations such as SNCC, which counted Forman, Lewis, and Stokely Carmichael among its members. It is instructive to realize that the photograph of Dr. King at the SNCC rally was taken at the same rally as the one of James Forman, below. Pearcy photographed both men on the occasion that has become one of the most dramatic and defining moments of the civil rights era. Forman, frustrated by the intransigence of city leaders in refusing to meet with the protesters in Montgomery, was even more so on the evening of March 16, in the aftermath of the brutalization of young activists by mounted police and sheriff’s posses. Declared a vehement and enraged Forman, “If we can’t sit at the table of democracy, then we’ll knock the [expletive] legs off!” (Clayborne Carson, In Struggle: SNCC and the Black Awakening of the 1960’s, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995 – https://lccn.loc.gov/94048182). It is undoubtedly not Forman’s comment that prompted Dr. King’s laughter, given the sharp contradiction between the avowed principle of non-violence that underlay Dr. King’s actions in the struggle and Forman’s defiant declaration. And yet, the morning following the SNCC rally, Dr. King, Reverend Abernathy, James Forman and John Lewis – the older pragmatists together with the younger revolutionaries- linked arms in solidarity and led a march to the Alabama state courthouse.
Pearcy, who passed away in May 2016, did not set out for Alabama from Harvard University in Spring 1965 to document the well-known leaders of the Movement, in fact, his allegiances lay elsewhere. In a note to me about his photographs a couple of years ago, he wrote: “We spent most of our time in Montgomery where the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) was marching on the state Capitol daily. These marches ended in violent, sometimes bloody confrontations with the police and [sheriffs]. And representing the college newspaper [as reporters for the Harvard Crimson], we were covering the events from the perspective of the students in SNCC rather than the more well-known leaders like Dr.King and his Southern Christian Leadership Conference.” But, being a good photo-journalist Glen did indeed photograph the leaders of the Movement when the opportunity arose and from very close quarters — unheard of in the present day. And by doing so, he left us indelible images of Dr. King and his contemporaries in pursuit of a shared vision of the beloved community and a just society for all Americans.
In closing, we provide some resources from the Library of Congress that illuminate and expand our understanding of the legacy that Dr. Martin Luther King and other heroes of the freedom struggle created for all of us, at home and abroad.
[online exhibit] The Civil Rights Act of 1964: A Long Struggle for Freedom
[online exhibit] Voices of Civil Rights
Mieder, Wolfgang. “Making a Way Out of No Way: Martin Luther King’s Use of Proverbs for Civil Rights,” 2011 lecture at the Library of Congress.
Shankar, Guha. “Marching in Montgomery, 1965,” Folklife Today, 2015.
Winick, Stephen. “Thoughts on Martin Luther King Day,” Folklife Today, 2015.