January 19, 2016

MLK: March 25, 1965

Alabama state troopers bar MLK from the state capitol.

As appropriate, Twitter featured two different MLK Day threads yesterday, one for tributes and remembrances, the other tracking protests and activism. I came upon this in the latter actually, a photo I had never seen before.

A little research revealed it’s was an AP photo from March 25th, 1965. The caption I found read simply:

AL state troopers bar Dr. Martin Luther King from the state capitol.

King’s appearance on those grounds marked the culmination of a 5-day, 54-mile march from Selma. In the aftermath of the historic confrontation and violence in that city — the trek taking place eight days after President Johnson finally submitted voting rights legislation to Congress — the marchers were now under the federal protection of the National Guard. Arriving in the capitol, King was joined by 25,000 people to deliver a petition to Governor Wallace calling for the right to vote; equal protection under the law; and an end to police brutality.

Here’s the NYT cover and the front page story that accompanied the event that day:

New York Times front page March 25th, 1965 on MLK and the march on Alabama's capitol

What makes the photo seem so immediate, and contemporary — besides the fact that voting rights are being rolled back again today — is how much it feels like a selfie. For a news photo, it’s unusually intimate even now.

Another factor that reflects more current news photo sensibilities is how cinematic it is.  The way the trooper is oriented off King’s shoulder, like their bodies and roles are inextricably connected, could be straight off a movie poster. The way media and the country were completely galvanized by this point, that long line of officers, standing curiously at ease, is also theatric. (And isn’t “a show” or “display” of force also that?)

The governor having agreed to meet and then reversing himself, the line in the distance reflects the uniformity of the Southern white resistance. At the same time, the image brims with audacity. No matter how many troops were standing behind him, and regardless whether the Governor acquiesced or not, time was turning in MLK’s favor. Literally, he and the movement are facing down the power. Most impressively, though, the quality of his gaze — in its equanimity and quiet understanding — manages to complement his brilliant oratory. With total poise, the look speaks of fearlessness, grace, and thorough recognition.

(photo 1: AP; image 2: NYT Archive)

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Michael Shaw
See other posts by Michael here.

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