Photographs of Civil Rights protesters at Martin Luther King Jr.’s first national address

By TIMOTHYNA DUNCAN FOR DAILYMAIL.COM

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.

History in the making: Martin Luther King Jr., then 28 years old, delivered a rousing speech, Give us the Ballot, at the  Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom, organized on May 17 1957 to end segregation in public schools. Dressed in clergy robes, he is pictured on the podium  while other Civil Rights leaders Bishop Sherman Lawrence Greene, Bishop William Jacob Walls, Roy Wilkins, and Asa Philip Randolph (last four on the first row, left to right) keenly look on. Walls and Greene spoke earlier but the last speech of the day had been reserved for Dr King, who addressed segregation, voting rights and the racial violence that was widespread in America at the time

Working the crowd: 25,000 demonstrators gathered at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC, which was the first large-scale gathering of African Americans at the venue.  Freelance photographer Lee Friedlander, then 22 years old, focused on capturing ordinary and intimate moments like this picture showing a father cradling his daughter. Such moments may have been overlooked since many photographers at the time just took pictures of the distinguished speakers

Center of attention: The address cemented Dr King's status as the top Civil Rights orator. Two days after the speech, a crowd of close to 2,000 crammed into Philadelphia’s Zion Baptist Church to get a glimpse of the budding leader. Dr King is pictured here in the middle of a swarm of marchers and reporters and on his left in a dapper black coat is Elmer Carter, the chairman of New York's State Commission against Discrimination, an organization set up in 1945 to ensure companies didn't factor race, creed or religion when hiring

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 women in charge: Among those in attendance were prominent Civil Rights leaders Rosa Parks (center) and Ella Baker (right).  Parks had become a prominent figure in 1955 after she was jailed for refusing to give up her seat in a public bus to a white bus rider in Montgomery, Alabama. While other African Americans had also defied the bus segregation rules, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People - NAACP - deemed Parks as the one to rally behind because they claimed she was older and had a good reputation. On Parks's right is her mentor and one of the event's lead organizers, Ella Baker,  who has been called the 'most influential woman in the Civil Rights Movement'. Once the highest ranking woman at the NAACP, she emphasized a grassroots approach to racial equality during her 50-year career

A friend in deed: Harry Belafonte, pictured at the Prayer Pilgrimage with his wife Julie (center) and actress Ruby Dee (right), often used his celebrity to fundraise for the Civil Rights movement. He even raised $50,000 to bail Dr King in 1963 after he was jailed in Birmingham, Alabama. During this event, Belafonte apparently remarked to a friend, 'We play the hit and run game up here. We come down here like this and say our piece and then it’s all over. But the Rev. Martin Luther King has to go back and face it all over again'

'Queen of Gospel': Pictured in a floral hair band and a black cardigan, gospel artist Mahalia Jackson performed two solos at the Prayer Pilgrimage. Jackson - who has been hailed as the 'Queen of Gospel' - was a world renowned singer who would often sing before Dr King's speeches. Just a year before this event, her house was bombed after she performed before his address at the boycott of public buses in Montgomery, Alabama. Harry Belafonte (left) described Jackson as 'the single most powerful black woman in the United States'

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.’

Lost in thought: A pensive Sammy Davis Jr is pictured seated on the steps at the Lincoln Memorial. The highly popular singer, actor and activist was a significant financial contributor to the Civil Rights Movement and refused to perform at segregated events. Eugene T. Reed, a Long Island dentist and a leading organizer of Civil Rights marches, is seated on Davis's left and renowned actress and activist Ruby Dee is on the right. Six years after the Prayer Pilgrimage, Dee emceed the March on Washington, when Dr King delivered his historic 'I Have a Dream' speech

Influential: Mordecai Johnson, pictured at the podium, also addressed marchers during the event. The prominent Civil Rights pastor often delivered speeches around the country and was the first Black president of Howard University. Seated behind him were Civil Rights leaders Bishop  Walls, Roy Wilkins, Asa Philip Randolph (first row, left to right) and Jesse Tinsley (second row standing)

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.’

Confidence: Lee Friedlander, now 82, focused on photographing children because he believed they represented the 'real energy' of the movement. One of the more poignant photographs in Friedlander's portfolio shows a bold young Cub Scout - who was most likely attending a segregated school - scowling in front of a sea of Civil Rights demonstrators.  The Boys' Scout of America - the largest youth organization in America - included both Black and White people but many branches followed the local segregation laws, which were widespread in the South

Like father, like son: The son of a demonstrator clutching the hand of his father as he listens to the speakers on stage is another one of Friedlander's pictures. The freelance photographer struggled to get his work published mainly because he focused on capturing intimate moments shared by marchers rather than of the prestigious speakers. It would take more than 50 years for his work to be published

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.’

Coming together: Friedlander was eventually heralded as a great photographer. Publishing company Eakins Press Foundation decided to release 58 of the images he had taken at the Prayer Pilgrimage from his original 35-millimetre negatives. Pictured here are those at the tail end of the march, which drew people from all walks of life and races, although the majority were African Americans who worked with labor unions

All dressed up: The event fell on a Sunday and mimicked a church service.  The attendees at the march - which featured spirituals, speeches from pastors and gospel songs - dressed and behaved as such.  During moving moments, they would shout ' Yes Lord ', which are typical responses in African American congregations. Here, Friedlander snaps marchers standing at the far end of the march probably because there was a shortage of seats.  The woman donning a dapper blazer and flamboyant hat while confidently resting her hand on her waist is a classic example of the thousands of marchers who showed up in their Sunday best

Tired out: But some marchers - who had traveled from several states around the country - risked ruining their Sunday best during the three-hour event when they rested on newspaper pages laid on the ground. Their dedication is reminiscent of that showed by demonstrators at the March on Washington held at the same venue six years later. A total of 450 buses left New York City in the early hours of the morning from Harlem and hundreds of other buses in different states carried many of the demonstrators who totaled 250,000

Witnessing history: The Prayer Pilgrimage was held on the third anniversary of the landmark Supreme Court decision, Brown v Board of Education, which had declared segregation in public schools unconstitutional. But then-President Dwight K. Eisenhower was not enforcing the ruling and even said of the southern leaders against 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.’  While many were angered by the president's reluctance to enforce the law, the marchers still arrived at the event in high spirits. Here, Friedlander took a picture of sharply dressed marchers including a man in a suit and an off-kilter hat with an acoustic guitar hanging over his shoulders

'Free at last!': This is another one of Lee Friedlander's photos that captured the sentiment of the march. Following this large scale gathering, the US congress passed its first federal Civil Rights Act since 1875, which is now seen as a step towards the main Civil Rights Act of 1964, a historic law which prohibited discrimination on the basis of ethnicity, race or religion

Listening in: Friedlander's pictures are currently on exhibition at Yale University. The photographer is expected to make a rare public appearance at the university to speak about his experience photographing the Prayer Pilgrimage.  ‘This extraordinary photographic record serves to indelibly etch this Pilgrimage onto the fabric of the mind,' Mildred Bond Roxborough, Special Assistant to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said

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. 

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