It was the historic Civil Rights march that brought Martin Luther King Jr. into the nation’s spotlight.
But the tiny moments from the 1957 demonstration, Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom, would have otherwise been overlooked had it not been for a novice freelance photographer who is exhibiting his pictures for the first time – 51 years after they were ignored.
Lee Friedlander, now 82, documented the ordinary and intimate moments during the landmark event organized – during the early stages of the Civil Rights Movement – to end segregation in public schools. Newspapers at the time refused to publish his work because he was not yet a prominent photographer and had taken several pictures of the marchers rather than of the distinguished speakers.
On May 17, 25,000 marchers gathered at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC and heard Dr King address the nation for the first time.
In his speech entitled Give Us the Ballot, the budding leader spoke about desegregating schools and public spaces, expanding voting rights for African Americans and ending the racial violence that ravaged America.
The speech came just four months before nine Black students were prevented from attending Little Rock Central High School in Alabama, even though the Supreme Court had ruled segregation in public schools unconstitutional.
Dr King’s address compelled then-President Dwight K. Eisenhower to enforce the ruling and cemented his status as a poignant orator. A noted news editor at the time, James Hicks, even hailed him as the ‘top Negro leader’ after the rousing address.
La Tanta Autry, the curator of the exhibition called Let Us March On: Lee Friedlander and the Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom’, says Dr King’s speech garnered the attention of many and was the stepping stone towards landmark government bills and resolutions.
‘Dr King wasn’t well known at the time and there were many people who hadn’t heard him talk,’ she told DailyMail.com.
‘He was different because he spoke in a lower tone – a very different approach from the leading Civil Rights figures at the time.
‘People responded positively and later that year a Civil Rights Act of 1957 was ratified, a step towards the main Civil Rights Act of 1964.’
Rosa Parks, Sammy Davis Jr. and Harry Belafonte were among those in attendance but Friedlander also focused on those in the crowd who were ignored by other photographers at the time, eager to get perfect shots of the speakers and celebrities who had attended.
The then-22-year-old wove through the attendees at the march – the first large-scale gathering of African Americans at the Lincoln Memorial – photographing their facial expressions and body language and accurately highlighting the urgency of an event often unheralded in America’s history.
The march fell on a Sunday and mimicked a church service because it featured spirituals, speeches from pastors and songs from notable gospel artists including Mahalia Jackson – ‘the Queen of Gospel.’ During moving moments, the crowd would shout ‘Yes Lord’ – a call and response tactic typical of traditional African American churches.
The Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom was held on the third anniversary of the landmark Supreme Court decision, Brown v Board of Education, which had declared segregation in public schools illegal.
But Eisenhower had initially been ambivalent about enforcing the ruling.
‘They are not bad people,’ Eisenhower said of the southern officials resisting desegregation.
‘All they are concerned about is to see that their sweet little girls are not required to sit in school alongside some big overgrown Negro.’
Frustrated by the government’s reluctance, Dr King had warned Eisenhower in February 1957 that he would organize a march if his administration did not fulfill its promise to desegregate public schools.
‘We shall have to lead our people to you in the capitol in order to call the nation’s attention to the violence and organized terror directed toward [men], women, and children who merely seek freedom,’ a telegram sent from Dr King and members of his civil rights group stated.
Dr King kept to his word three months later as a signal to Eisenhower and in December 1957 the United States Congress passed its first federal Civil Rights Bill since 1875.
Just two years before, Dr King and other Civil Rights leaders organized a boycott of public buses after Rosa Parks was jailed because she did not give up her seat to a white bus rider. The boycott lasted 381 days, uniting Black people and propelling the Civil Rights movement to greater heights.
The Pilgrimage Prayer for Freedom was also the precursor to the 1963 March on Washington, when Dr King delivered his speech entitled ‘I Have a Dream’ – the historic address that swayed the government to make strides towards creating initiatives such as the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Civil Rights Act of 1968.
What may have also hindered Friedlander’s opportunity to get these photographs published at the time was his emphasis on the children at the march.
The son of a demonstrator clutching the hand of his father as he listens to the speakers on stage is a moment Friedlander captured while another in his portfolio shows a girl nestling in her father’s arms.
Friedlander, who rarely gives interviews, says he focused on photographing children because he saw their stories as central to the Civil Rights Movement.
He said: ‘The children at the march were where the real energy was and I wanted to work at the edge of the Civil Rights movement.’
Most of the other attendees were smartly dressed in their Sunday best and even risked ruining their outfits during the latter stages of the three-hour event by resting on newspapers laid on the floor.
One image shows a defiant woman donning a flamboyant hat while confidently resting her hand on her waist and another is of a sharply dressed man in a suit and an off-kilter hat, with an acoustic guitar hanging over his shoulders.
It wasn’t until 2008 that these pictures documenting this landmark event were uncovered. Eakins Press Foundation decided to release the pictures after he showed the publishing company the 58 images he had captured at the Prayer Pilgrimage from his original 35-millimetre negatives.
He recently donated the pictures to Yale University Art Gallery which is exhibiting his photos until July 7. Friedlander, who has now been heralded as one of the masters in his field, is expected to make a rare public appearance at Yale on May 11 to speak on his experience photographing the march.
‘Lee Friedlander’s photographs starkly and vividly capture the massive multigenerational and interracial, crowd of men and women who answered the call to join in a Prayer Pilgrimage to Washington, D.C.,’ Mildred Bond Roxborough, Special Assistant to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said.
‘This extraordinary photographic record serves to indelibly etch this Pilgrimage onto the fabric of the mind.’
Affirmation and Pledge recited at the Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom
We believe in the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of all mankind. We believe that democracy is the noblest political expression of this religious faith. We believe that in the household of God there can be no discrimination among his children on the irrelevant basis of race, color or religious affiliation.
We believe that to compel the segregation of the children of God on such basis is sinful defiance of God’s will. We believe that the American people of whatever racial origin or whatever church affiliation are deeply religious and wish to order their lives and their country according to the great moral truths of our common religious heritage and the inspiring principles of our democratic society.
In this conviction, we call upon all Americans to join us in prayer and in work to eradicate racial and religious prejudices so that every American may freely enjoy the fruits of our common efforts to advance humanity. We believe firmly in the ultimate triumph of this faith in the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man.