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Marching for civil rights

Photojournalist Leonard Freed's 'This Is the Day' documents the 1963 march on Washington, D.C., and the hope, passion and determination of that historic day.

February 09, 2013|By Liesl Bradner
  • A photo from the book "This Is the Day: The March on Washington."
A photo from the book "This Is the Day: The March on Washington." (©Estate of Leonard…)

What's remarkable about photojournalist Leonard Freed's book "This Is the Day: The March on Washington" (Getty: $29.95), a photo essay documenting the historic Aug. 28, 1963, civil-rights march, is that it includes only one photograph of Martin Luther King Jr. A wide-angle shot of the crowd gathered at the base of the Lincoln Memorial shows a barely discernible King at the podium giving his celebrated "I Have a Dream" speech.

Freed's "focus was on seeing the event from multiple points of view, from students to clergy to the national park rangers," said Paul Farber, instructor of urban studies at the University of Pennsylvania who worked closely with the photographer's widow, Brigitte, to select 75 images from his archive of 500 black-and-white photos (Freed died in 2006). "He's really giving us a multi-perspective, a flurry of visual exchanges."

King's spirit is clearly present in Freed's close-up shots of marchers dressed in their Sunday best holding hands and singing "We Shall Overcome." Filled with emotion, individual faces reflect passion, hope and determination.

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"What's spectacular is that he captured the ordinary people who were there, the neighbor next door, the people down the street," said civil rights leader Julian Bond, one of only eight students in a class taught by King at Morehouse College in Atlanta. "For someone who was there, I found them very compelling." In his foreword, Bond details the power struggles behind the scenes in planning such a momentous event. Sponsored by five civil rights organizations and led by labor leader A. Philip Randolph and activist Bayard Rustin, the peaceful demonstration focused on voting rights and the desegregation of schools, and eventually led to passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

"I was up on the podium and could see this mass of humanity, but I had no inkling of how many people there were," recalled Bond, whose fondest memory of that day was Sammy Davis Jr. thanking him for a can of Coke. It wasn't until afterward when he saw the newspapers ( did he realize that he was present at what was then perhaps the largest protest march ever seen in the nation's capital. Most estimates pegged the crowd at 250,000.

While working in Germany in the '60s, Freed photographed a black American soldier standing guard at the newly constructed Berlin Wall. The contrast of the soldier protecting the freedom in Europe while his fellow black Americans were being denied equal rights at home compelled Freed to return to the U.S. to document the civil rights movement.

Freed approached the march as a day in its entirety, from early morning preparations on the periphery, to stacks of picket signs, to wide angles of the National Mall evolving into swelling masses framing the reflecting pool anchored by the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial. He embedded himself in the crowd, zooming in on children clapping and marchers straining to hear the speeches. He then shot the aftermath with stragglers lingering among discarded fliers strewn about the grounds.

Freed published several noteworthy books, including "The Italians" and "Police Work," a study of New York police in the 1970s. His photos are included in collections at the J. Paul Getty Museum and the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

"This Is The Day," published to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the march, was the brainchild of Brigitte Freed, who was inspired after hearing a remark by then-Sen. Barack Obama to civil-rights activists, "I stand here because you walked." With the exception of four images, which were included in Freed's 1968 book, "Black in White America," the photos had never before been published.

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