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Rare Images from the Civil Rights Movement on View at NY Historical Society

By Margaret Kelly | January 15, 2015 4:45pm | Updated on January 15, 2015 4:46pm
 An exhibit of photographs by Stephen Somerstein documents moments on protesters' fifty-four mile march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965.
Civil Rights March Photo Exhibit at the New-York Historical Society
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NEW YORK CITY — When City College student Stephen Somerstein heard Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s call for a march to Montgomery in 1965, he wanted to witness what he knew was going to be a historic event.

A budding photographer and picture editor of the school newspaper, Somerstein, then 24, grabbed his camera and headed to the Deep South. Fifty years later, his photographs documenting the Selma-to-Montgomery Civil Rights March are on display in a new exhibition at New-York Historical Society

Somerstein, a Manhattan native who now lives in California, "went down to Alabama not as a civil rights advocate, but as a newspaperman and photojournalist, notwithstanding [his] personal commitment to human rights," he said in an email to DNAinfo.

Over the five-day, 54 mile journey from Selma to Montgomery, Somerstein photographed Rosa Parks, James Baldwin, Joan Baez, Bayard Rustin and hundreds of others marching with Dr. King to protest repression of black voters' rights.

Their efforts culminated in Dr. King's March 25 address from the steps of the Montgomery State Capitol and the signing of the Voting Rights Act three months later. 

Among the many photos taken on the march, these images "provide a more intimate and iconic view of both the essential civil rights leaders, musicians, supporters and luminaries," Somerstein explained.

However, like the recently-released film "Selma," the photos also turn a lens on those whom "the march and the civil rights laws were intended to uplift and enfranchise." Somerstein was as interested in the movement's foot soldiers and onlookers as he was in its leaders. 

City College newspaper "Main Events" published a few of the photographs and Somerstein sold several others, but most were archived until 2010, when the San Francisco Art Exchange included the collection in an exhibition on the photography of the civil rights era.

The New-York Historical Society's exhibit marks their first public appearance in New York. It opened on Jan. 15, which would have been the 86th birthday of Dr. King. 

Scholar and activist Dr. Cornel West will speak on African-American leadership in conjunction with the exhibition in an event on Wednesday, March 18, 2015 at 6:30 p.m. More details are available here

"Freedom Journey 1965: Photographs of the Selma to Montgomery March by Stephen Somerstein" will be on view through April 19, 2015.