We remember the March on Washington, which took place nearly 50 years ago, in August 1963, for the oratory of Martin Luther King, and for the impact of King's "I Have a Dream" speech on the course of American history.
Now, thanks to the work of cultural historian Paul Farber, whose research led to the recently release book This Is the Day (J. Paul Getty Museum), we have a broader and more intimate perspective on the March rendered by the photographer Leonard Freed. Farber, a Mount Airy native and Penn grad, spent three years along with Brigitte Freed, the photographer's widow, reviewing and curating the 500 images Freed recorded that day. Here, through Freed's thoughtful lens, is the heat, the humor, the patience, the placards, the chants, and the long inter-racial chains of hands and arms splayed out along the edges of the National Mall.
For Farber, who wrote the book's afterword and who is the historical consultant to the Freed archive, the book comes as the fulmination of a lifetime interest in civil rights. "My first and second grade teacher, Carol Corson, went to the March," Farber told me. "Ms. Corson is a white Quaker woman, and she taught me early on, by teaching about the March, to be present with my convictions (especially regarding racial justice and white privilege) and to join others to make the message louder."
But Farber, whose work has focused on the representations of the Berlin Wall on American culture, was doubly inspired when he saw an exhibit of Freed's work in Berlin. Freed had photographed African American soldiers on duty protecting freedom in Berlin at a time when their own rights were strictly restricted at home. "He was capturing a transatlantic perspective on justice," said Farber. "I was drawn to Freed by the ways he used his photography to explore and encroach upon some of the most challenging social problems of his time—the state of Jewish life in Europe after the Holocaust, the American civil rights movement, and the fragile state of postwar democracy."
At Penn, Farber worked as the research director for civil rights historian Michael Eric Dyson and he asked Dyson to write an essay to accompany Freed's photos. Civil rights leader Julian Bond wrote the foreword.
On Monday, I caught up with Farber, who's been traveling back and forth to Washington, DC in advance of this summer's 50th anniversary commemorations.
Nathaniel Popkin: This book is really a social history of that epic political event. Freed was interested in the fabric of the day, the people, their signs, their moods, their faces... and as you point out in your essay, hardly in the speech. Has this angle ever been developed before on the march on Washington?
Paul Farber: Public memory of the March has been furnished by Dr. King's soaring oratory, but also particular documentary photographs from the day that often frame our sense of the legacy. One image: Bob Adelman's iconic image of Dr. King at the culmination of his "I Have a Dream speech," and others featuring the leader, beaming and smiling with a faceless sea behind him. But when we see members of the crowd, they are often just in isolation or from afar. Freed captured the marchers' fields of vision. We see the story of race as a story of American entanglement, injustice, tension, but ultimately and most powerfully as coexistence.
NP: And you, in your essay, are interested not as Bond in the political developments that led to the March or as Dyson on the racism and anger that motivated it, but on Freed, his manner of working, his technique, his instincts, and the footsteps he would later retrace in the 1980s and 1990s. What's telling about those footsteps—that he was a pioneer? That he found magic that day?
PF: Freed's techniques were as aesthetically sophisticated as they were socially-aware. I do think others can follow in his footsteps, but by studying his particular approaches—to photograph people with pathos, to seek them on common ground and over time, and to stage tension with the possibility for transformation, all brokered through the encounter of a photographer and his subject in a shared social space. He was seeking a story about race in America that was being explored over a long-term project. He did not seek images for the sake of closure, erasure, or authority over his subjects. He wanted deep truths about humans and their social landscapes to emerge and share space within a photograph's frame.
NP: What happened that day truly was a march on Washington—a plea a demand for government to listen to the people. Did it have immediate impact?
PF: The March had an immediate impact. We often consider that from the perspective of the major figures of the day meeting with President Kennedy at the White House, or major shifts in attitudes toward civil rights legislation. But, we also can consider the hundreds of thousands of marchers going back to their communities around the country, having shared one of the greatest days in our nation's history, seeking forms of transformation that built on the previous actions taken in their local communities.
Importantly, the March also didn't bring closure or the end of the movement—it enlivened the long march toward justice. The March was organized as an incorporative event—to manage internecine tensions of the civil rights movement as well as challenges to bring together ally factions, including several mainly-white institutions who were they themselves evolving on racial justice.
Though the day was triumphant, thereafter remained the reality of systematic forms of racial hatred and violence. Weeks later, the bombing of Birmingham's 16th Street Baptist Church and murder of four young girls was one painful reminder that the National Mall is a great space of healing, but venturing there grants a symbolic justice that can only be guaranteed with greater forms of change and action beyond the Mall's mapped boundaries.
NP: I like Freed's focus on the fabric of the day—I teach my students to "read the city"—and this was part of that—there's so much to read in these images, as you say. When you look at the photos, what strikes you the most?
PF: I see so much. Even after looking at these images hundreds of times during the selection and layout process, I see new details emerge all the time. A woman's necklace, protruding limb, a person's eye contact that is directed squarely at Leonard's lens but somehow hidden in the composition.