The Selma Montgomery March by James Karales, 1965

On March 7, 1965 — a day that would later be remembered as Bloody Sunday — a crowd of around 500 people marching from Selma, Alabama to the state capital in Montgomery to demand an end of segregation and to raise awareness about the Voting Rights Act were attacked by Alabama State Troopers and local police. The confrontation was broadcast on national television, causing widespread outrage. Two days later, a second march was held and a court order had prohibited it from heading out towards Montgomery.

Finally on March 21, after securing court protection, the marchers, now numbering thousands, embarked on the march from Selma to Montgomery. Four days later, they finished the 54-mile trip and reached Montgomery. The crowd by now had ballooned to around 25,000 people.

James Karales, a photographer with Look magazine, captured the marchers silhouetted against a turbulent sky on the march. The photo was arguably the best-known image of the march. Historian Taylor Branch who used the photo for the cover of the first book in his America in the King Years trilogy noted that: “It may well be the seminal image to come out of the civil rights movement. It’s an amazing combination of movement and shadow. It looks like they are marching out of the Red Sea.” (Branch used Exodus-inspired titles for all three books in his trilogy).

Look magazine, attempting find a new angle, focused on the role of the church in the Civil Rights movement. Afterall, King himself had criticized the Sourthern clergy’s penchant for maintaining order over justice in his famous Letter from Birmingham Jail two years prior. The photo was published on May 18, 1965, opening a story which read:

There have been marches before, but never marchers like these — a weaponless, potluck army, moving in conquest through hostile territory under the unwilling protection of the enemy. So did a Georgia preacher lead a pilgrimage of of unfranchised Alabama Negroes 54 miles this spring to the stope of their state capital. The concept was biblical. The execution was 1965 American: The Army and FBI gurranteed White House support. Patrol cars, helicopters, truck-borne latrines and first-aid vans bracketed the column, the marchers ate from paper plates with throwaway plastic spoons and slept under floodlit tents. Sustained by rationed peanut butter sandwiches, they never faltered in their pace and bitter humor. “I’ve been called ‘nigger,'” said somebody up front. “Well, from now on, it’s got to be ‘Mister nigger.'” Across the Black Belt farmland rolled the pickup words of their new battle hymn: “Oh, Wallace, you know you can’t jail us all; Oh, Wallace, segregation’s bound to fall.” In it, the white ministers, priests, rabbis and nuns, who had jetted vast distances to reinforce the march, found a new statement of faith.

In the same issue was a story provocatively titled “Our Churches’ Sin against the Negro.” The article was writen by Robert Spike, a theologian and civil-rights activist who was then executive director of the National Council of Churches’ Commission on Religion and Race. He wrote: “For years, most of our churches have aided and abetted the Anglo-Saxon white conspiracy… the churches in this country have been dominated by our society’s equivocation and, sometimes, outright evil in the matter of discrimination.” The article was credited with the rapid passage of the Voting Rights Act, but Spike would be murdered the following year.

Karales, the son of Greek immigrants, started out as a darkroom assistant to W. Eugene Smith when the latter was working on producing his monumental Pittsburgh. Just as JFK granted Stanley Tretick unparalleled access, Karales enjoyed a similar relationship with Martin Luther King. He documented both King’s work and family, taking intimate photos of the civil-rights activist playing with his young daughter. One photo showed King telling his seven-year-old daughter that they couldn’t go to an amusement park. Another of his memorable photoessays from 1960 showed a Black speech therapist teaching white children in rural Iowa.

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