Photo essay features never-before-seen images of historic March on Washington
Caitlin Yoshiko Kandil | 2/14/2013, 11:59 a.m.
To commemorate the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, a new photo essay featuring never-before-published images from the historic rally has just been released. The book of stunning black and white images, “This is the Day: The March on Washington,” features the work of American photographer Leonard Freed, and also includes a foreword by civil rights leader Julian Bond, an essay by Georgetown professor Michael Eric Dyson and an afterword by scholar Paul M. Farber.
Freed, who was born in New York in 1929 to Russian Jewish immigrants, spent much of his adult life in Europe working as a documentary photographer. In 1961, he traveled to Berlin to take pictures of the wall that was being built through the middle of the city. He saw several American GIs there, and snapped a photograph of one black soldier standing in front of the Berlin Wall that would change the course of his career.
“We, he and I, two Americans,” Freed later wrote. “We meet silently and part silently. Between us, impregnable and as deadly as the wall behind him, is another wall. It is there on the trolley tracks, it crawls along the cobble stones, across frontiers and oceans, reaching back home, back into our lives and deep into our hearts: dividing us, wherever we meet. I am White and he is Black.”
Haunted by the encounter, Freed decided to return to the United States to document racism and segregation in his home country. After spending some time in New York, Freed and his German-born wife, Brigitte, traveled to the nation’s capital for the March on Washington in 1963. As Brigitte recalled last week at a book event at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., she doesn’t have a single picture of herself at that historic event because her husband wanted to use every bit of film to capture the marchers.
While the most iconic images from that day are close-ups of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. standing before a sea of people, Freed’s are the opposite: He focuses on the faces in the crowd, leaving King in the background. “The day offered Freed a spectacle, not to marvel at from afar, or at a fixed distance, but to explore the March at its ground level,” said Farber, who is currently working on a biography of Freed, at the same event. “Freed meandered through multitudes on the Mall and the resulting images attest to his thoughtful photographing eye, as well as his active footwork throughout the day.”
Through this style, Freed’s photographs — which show women and men, dressed in their Sunday best, praying, singing, holding hands, clapping and listening intently to King speak — “affirm the profound beauty and historical significance of gathering as they frame collective action and democratic transformation,” according to Farber. And as Dyson said, these images capture “the calm dignity and the quiet beauty of black people and their allies.”
After the March on Washington, Freed continued to capture African American life with his camera. He followed Dr. King around the country, taking pictures of the civil rights leader in Baltimore, Alabama and other places where he spoke. Freed also photographed the daily lives of ordinary African Americans at protests, parades, beauty pageants and prisons — and this work was eventually published in 1968 as the photographic essay, “Black in White America.”
In 1983, Freed returned to the National Mall to photograph the commemorative 20th anniversary March. Unlike Freed’s work from 20 years ago, King is central to these pictures — his absence is underscored through shots of murals, signs and other paraphernalia bearing his image.
“We get a sense of a call to galvanize around King’s image,” Farber explained.
When Freed died in 2006, his widow, Brigitte, dedicated herself to promoting her husband’s work. Several years later, she heard President Barack Obama say, “I’m here because you all marched,” and came up with the idea for “This is the Day,” a collection of all her husband’s photographs from the March on Washington — and the twentieth anniversary march — in a single book.
“Leonard Freed, both in 1963 and in 1983, has captured that resistance, that relentless spirit, that edifying power that can never be put out by the forces of men and women who fail to see the light,” said Dyson. “He documented with aesthetic glory the beautiful calm dignity and wise purpose of human beings when they are in search of freedom.”