Photographer captured Martin Luther King Jr.’s journey

There’s much to be said for recording events in the pages of history books in type and ink.

But photojournalist Spider Martin made sure that when people turn the pages of history books back to the early summer of 1965, they won’t be focusing on the written word, they will see the images.

They will see each of the 54 miles walked by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and thousands of nonviolent protesters between Selma and Montgomery, Ala., burned in black and white on film.

We don’t have to turn the pages very far to see the record of King’s journey. “Selma to Montgomery: A March for the Right to Vote” is on view at Levine Museum of the New South until Feb. 22 as part of the “Destination Freedom: Civil Rights Struggles Then and Now” series. It features 48 of Martin’s photographs chronicling King’s interstate march.

On loan from the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, the traveling exhibit goes to great lengths to make sure Martin’s photographs do the talking. Each image is placed deliberately, some forming small timelines from stop-action snapshots of happenings along the Alabama highway.

On the far right wall is what must have been a series of photographs taken over the span of 20 minutes, beginning with protesters marching hand-in-hand with King leading them in prayer. Martin’s camera turns down the gallery wall, from the vanguard of protesters to the parked cars of a Highway Patrol battalion armed with tear gas launchers and clubs. Minimal captions provide additional information, but viewers are left to soak in the tension created in this series, knowing the repercussions of the clash about to ensue.

Martin didn’t just record the moments of struggle; he was there to photograph the moments of triumph, too. His compositions often feature the blissful exhaustion of embattled protesters. At the end of the march, during a rallying speech given by the Rev. Ralph Abernathy, Martin makes sure to capture the still-strident crowd.

Martin was young at the time of the Selma march, but already a seasoned photojournalist for the Birmingham News. His photos, though, raised his profile around the world when they were published everywhere from Time to Der Spiegel and Paris Match. King credited Martin’s photographs with playing a key role in the passing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. “We could have marched, we could have protested forever, but if it weren’t for guys like (Spider), it would have been for nothing. The whole world saw (those) pictures.”

From that historical angle, it’s easy to appreciate the content of Martin’s photographs. But “Selma to Montgomery” allows the opportunity to look deeper at his images. It becomes apparent that Martin had a master’s eye for composition. Even in photographs taken in pressure and stress, the artist’s touch seeps into the glossy prints.

This story was produced as part of the Charlotte Arts Journalism Alliance.