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Witness to History: Selma Photography of Stephen Somerstein

February 1, 2020 to June 14, 2020
"Vote" written in sunscreen on the forehead of marcher Bobby Simmons.

Stephen Somerstein, "Vote" written in sunscreen on the forehead of marcher Bobby Simmons, 1965. © Stephen Somerstein

Marchers on the Jefferson Davis highway on their way to Montgomery.

Stephen Somerstein, Marchers on the Jefferson Davis highway on their way to Montgomery, 1965. © Stephen Somerstein

Young civil rights activists with American flags march towards the State Capital Building.

Stephen Somerstein, Young civil rights activists with American flags march towards the State Capital Building, 1965. © Stephen Somerstein

Stephen Somerstein, “Things Go Better With Coke” a family gathered to watch the marchers on their way to Montgomery, 1965. © Stephen Somerstein

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. speaking to 25,000 civil rights marchers at conclusion of the Selma to Montgomery March.

Stephen Somerstein, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. speaking to 25,000 civil rights marchers at conclusion of the Selma to Montgomery March, 1965. © Stephen Somerstein

The historic 1965 Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, civil rights march concerned one issue—the right to vote. Two thousand marchers set out on March 21 along Route 80, known as the “Jefferson Davis Highway.” After two failed attempts to complete the march, President Johnson dispatched federal and state troops to guard the demonstrators along the way to the state capitol, 54 miles away. By the time the marchers reached Montgomery, their number had grown to 25,000.

Hearing of the events, 24-year-old student photographer Stephen Somerstein jumped on a bus in New York city and headed to Alabama. He arrived on March 25, in time for the final march to the state capitol. With five cameras around his neck and only 15 rolls of film, Somerstein seemed to be everywhere at once documenting this pivotal moment in the civil rights movement. He captured photographs of Dr. King and other prominent activists such as Rosa Parks, James Baldwin, Bayard Rustin, John Lewis, and Joan Baez. Somerstein also took poignant portraits of his fellow demonstrators, as well as the anonymous bystanders who had gathered along route to observe the civil action in progress.

This exhibition presents 55 of the photographs taken by Somerstein on March 25, 1965, accompanied by his commentary of the day’s events. It is guest curated by Farrah Spott and on view at the Brandywine River Museum of Art as a companion to the exhibition Votes for Women: A Visual History.