When Photo Was King

Images from the Deep South take viewers on a walk through the civil rights era

As it turned out, Life pulled the plug on the idea after deciding that it had saturated the civil rights issue. But that didn't occur until after Budnik switched from covering the segregationists to capturing the events of the march.

Joanne Bland, who was 11 years old when she joined the march at the Pettus bridge, participated in parts of the Selma to Montgomery walk. She now runs the National Voting Rights Museum in Selma. Bland says that the presence of photographers like Budnik and television cameras reassured marchers that the outside world would get a ringside view of the civil rights effort.

"When all that awful stuff that happened on that bridge was broadcast on the news and in the papers," says Bland, "it became something you couldn't deny anymore. The news people managed to get footage and pictures out and people saw what was going on and they were outraged."

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. leads marchers into Montgomery.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. leads marchers into Montgomery.

The images passed as a kind of proof of the reality behind the words. For instance, earlier in 1965, when King announced the start of a drive to register black voters in the South, he said that about three million of the five million eligible blacks in the region were not registered. The numbers in the county encompassing Selma were even more startling. Only several hundred of its estimated 15,000 eligible African Americans were registered, compared with more than 9,000 of the 14,000 eligible whites.

The face that Budnik put on the issue, in his image of voters being sworn in in Montgomery, tells the story in a way that only a photograph can. The eight or nine men and women with their hands raised in the picture are not young. Several look to be far beyond child-rearing years. They have never done this before.

His image of King, his wife and Dr. Ralph Abernathy walking past the stares of segregationists outside a church in Montgomery shows people who know the dance all too well. It's an understated portrayal of the old world of defiance meeting the new one of resolve.

Budnik's pictures of children involved in the demonstrations are equally poignant. One -- which became a magazine icon of the march -- depicts the silhouette of a teenage boy carrying a pole with a handmade flag down a road. Another shows young black children in front of the Dallas County courthouse, in Selma, kneeling and praying behind a sign that says "Sheriff Cars Only."

"I was truly struck by the bravery of these children," says Budnik. "Their parents and maybe older brothers and sisters were in jail, and there they were on the sidewalk outside."

Bland recalls that she and her friends didn't think of the bravery as much as they felt the fear. "We were sure afraid, but this was just something we felt we had to do, so we wouldn't be pushed around no more."

She says that after the attack at the Pettus bridge 35 years ago, there were plenty of reasons to want to stay away from the next march. But they didn't. The following Tuesday, she and her friends joined King's symbolic walk across the bridge where they knelt and prayed. Two weeks later, she joined nearly 25,000 others for speeches below the steps of the statehouse in Montgomery, where Jefferson Davis had once been sworn in as president of the Confederacy.

"We walked to the capitol and heard the speeches and had that feeling of accomplishment that we had done something big. In fact, that was my first inclination that there was a possibility of change."

That summer, Congress passed the federal Voting Rights Act. In the first election that followed, Sheriff Clark was voted out of office.

The exhibition of Dan Budnik photographs continues through Wednesday, March 15, at the Tempe Public Library, 3500 South Rural. Budnik will talk about his work at the library on Saturday, January 15, at 3:30 p.m.

Contact Edward Lebow at his online address: ed.lebow@newtimes.com

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