Stephen Somerstein talks about a photo he took during the famous 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery march in Alabama at the New-York Historical Society, Jan. 14, 2015.
Stephen Somerstein talks about a photo he took during the famous 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery march in Alabama at the New-York Historical Society, Jan. 14, 2015.

NEW YORK - Stephen Somerstein was a 24-year-old college student when he photographed the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and the 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery march in Alabama that changed the course of civil rights in the United States.

Fifty years later as the deaths of unarmed black men at the hands of white police officers spark protests, and as the film "Selma," about King's role leading the march, wins acclaim, Somerstein's photographs are the focus of an exhibition marking the anniversary.

Somerstein, then picture editor of the student newspaper at City College of New York, said that "all through the march, I was thinking, 'This is history in the making. Can I capture it? Can I give a sense to other people of what I am experiencing myself?' That was the thread that always wove through the back of my mind. Am I up for the task?"

"Freedom Journey 1965: Photographs of the Selma to Montgomery March," which opens Friday at the New-York Historical Society and runs through April 19, is proof he was.

In dozens of photographs, Somerstein documented much of the march with photos of King, his inner circle, marchers, police and the hundreds of people in small towns who viewed history in the making from their front porches and sites along the route.

Life-changing event

"I turned my camera most consciously to the people watching the march," he said. "It was meant to free them. The march was meant to give them voting rights. The march was meant to change their lives."

The black-and-white and color photographs in the exhibition are a small fraction of the 400 Somerstein took after setting off in mid-March by bus from New York, like thousands of other young people at the time, with five cameras and more than a dozen rolls of film.

"Instead of looking in, Stephen looked out," said Marilyn Satin Kushner, curator of the exhibit. "These are great photographs of a very historic moment."

Somerstein, now 74, quickly realized the scale of what King was trying to accomplish.

"I wanted the pictures to be a window for people to look back in time and see what it was like then," he explained. "I needed to capture a sense of their vision."

Favorite images

Among Somerstein's favorite photos is an iconic image of King, taken from behind as he addressed a sea of 25,000 people in Montgomery, and another of people listening intently with their heads bowed, concentrating on what he was saying.

"I said to myself this is really remarkable, just being there at that moment," recalled Somerstein, a retired physicist who never gave up photography.

While walking along the highway he spotted a multigenerational black family seated on a hilltop under a sign that read, "Things Go Better with Coke." Somerstein considers the photo he took of them to be among his best images.

He captured author James Baldwin smiling, singer Joan Baez in front of the Alabama State Capitol with a phalanx of troopers on the steps behind her, a young black teenager with the word "vote" written across his forehead, and King surrounded by microphones.

Four months after the historic march, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965. "He was a man of that time," Somerstein said of King. "We can only hope that some similar individual will come our way to take us through the next set of problems and travails that society always encounters."