King, flanked by some of his principal lieutenants: from left to right, Andrew Young, who later became a congressman, ambassador to the United Nations, and mayor of Atlanta; Ralph Abernathy, King’s closest adviser; and John Lewis, who is now a congressman.
A half century ago, Martin Luther King, Jr., receiving the Nobel Peace Prize, in Oslo, spoke of the “creative battle” that twenty-two million black men and women in the United States were waging against “the starless midnight of racism.” A few months later, in March, 1965, that battle came to Selma, Alabama, the birthplace of the White Citizens’ Council. The issue was voting rights. As King pointed out, there were more blacks in jail in the city than there were on the voting rolls. James Baldwin, who was among the marchers, had written, “I could not suppress the thought that this earth had acquired its color from the blood that had dripped down from these trees.” The series of marches there––the first was Bloody Sunday, a bloody encounter with a racist police force armed with bullwhips and cattle prods; the last, the fifty-four-mile procession from Selma to the State House, in Montgomery––pushed Lyndon Johnson to send voting-rights legislation to Congress. The nonviolent discipline of the marchers, the subject of a new film by Ava DuVernay, and portrayed here in Steve Schapiro’s photographs of the Selma-to-Montgomery march, became such a resonant chapter in the black freedom struggle that Barack Obama, in 2007, went to Selma to speak, at Brown Chapel, just weeks after declaring for the Presidency. Almost eight years later, as Selma is being commemorated, demonstrators against racial injustice are employing as a despairing slogan the last words of Eric Garner, an African-American man on Staten Island in the grip of a police choke hold: “I can’t breathe.”