Historic Alabama march chronicled in campus exhibit

Matt Herron/www.takestockphotos.com Selma

Photographer Matt Herron spent five days documenting the 1965 voting-rights march from Selma to Montgomery. Forty-nine of Herron’s historic photographs are on view through February in a retrospective exhibition in the second-floor lounge of Tresidder Memorial Union.

Matt Herron/www.takestockphotos.com Selma

A photograph on view as part of I’m Walking for My Freedom: The Selma March, a 40th Anniversary Retrospective.

Documentary photographer Matt Herron remembers the five days that he spent in Alabama photographing the 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery voting rights march as the most intense of his life.

"My memory of it now is of walking backward for five days," said Herron, who shot more than 2,400 frames of film during the course of the march, which began with 3,200 people who set out from Selma and ended with a crowd estimated between 25,000 to 50,000 at the Alabama state Capitol on March 25, 1965. "I knew in general that everything we were doing was history—and I shot it that way," said the 73-year-old photographer, the founder of the Southern Documentary Project and now a resident of San Rafael.

Forty-nine of Herron's historic photographs are included in I'm Walking for My Freedom: The Selma March, a 40th Anniversary Retrospective, on display in the second floor lounge of Tresidder Memorial Union through February. The exhibit was organized as part of the 2005 Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration.

The mostly black-and-white photographs in the exhibit feature many famous faces, including those of civil rights leaders Martin Luther King Jr., Andrew Young and Ralph Abernathy and folksingers Joan Baez and Pete Seeger. But among the most moving portraits are of unnamed marchers, such as a black farmer in overalls looking out from under a felt hat with a wary, resolute expression. The farmer "just came out of rural Alabama in his coveralls to join in," Herron said. "To me, he's the essence of the march."

Also pictured are Doris Wilson, a 19-year-old black woman from Selma who lost her $12-a-week job at a lunchroom and was jailed after participating in a voter rights demonstration, and Iris Jones, a white suburban housewife from Villanova, Pa. Jones, who flew to Selma after seeing images of demonstrators being beaten during earlier attempts to march to Montgomery, fasted throughout the 54-mile-long march.

The march was "really the creation and expression of ordinary people," Herron wrote in material that accompanies the exhibit. "Thousands of Americans from every corner of America left their jobs and their homes and journeyed to Selma to lend their support to the cause of voting justice for black Southerners."

Herron himself had felt compelled by the civil rights movement to travel south. In the early 1960s, he was working as a freelance photographer for Life and Look magazines and organizing peace demonstrations for Quakers in Philadelphia.

He woke up one night, seized by the conviction that demonstrations made by "a thousand well-dressed Quakers" weren't making any difference at all, he said. Meanwhile, reports of students who were staging sit-downs in segregated lunchrooms in the South "came like a siren song. I realized if there was going to be any change, it was going to happen in the South."

Herron moved temporarily with his family to Mississippi, where he directed a team of eight photographers for the Southern Documentary Project, which recorded the work of civil rights organizations. Herron is now director of the photography agency Take Stock, which holds an archive of more than 75,000 historic photos of the civil rights and migrant farm labor movements.

Although Herron's work has been widely reproduced in exhibits, documentaries and books, the Tresidder exhibit marks the first time the Selma March images have been shown together, the photographer said.

"This is like a dream," Herron said, before last week's opening of the exhibit. "I've been itching for a long to time to do this."