Photographer who followed iconic activists brings King, civil rights movement alive
Photographer Steve Schapiro covered the civil rights movement for Life magazine in the ’60s, amassing a trove of seminal images of Dr. Martin Luther King and the movement he inspired.
Inviting contemplation is the determination on the face of Martin Luther King Jr., flanked by wife Coretta Scott King and inner circle members the Rev. Ralph Abernathy, Andrew Young and John Lewis, at the start of the Selma to Montgomery march on March 21, 1965.
And inspiring even more pondering is the countenance of the civil rights leader whose birthday we celebrate this holiday — as he stands with his wife, the now Congressman Lewis and pioneering labor leader A. Phillip Randolph, all in deep thought — on the steps of the Montgomery capitol, at the conclusion of the march on March 25, 1965.
“I only found that picture of the start of the Selma march like three or four years ago. It was a single image on a contact sheet, and many people have gone through my contact sheet books and never noticed it. Nor had I,” says photographer Steve Schapiro.
“I’ve always felt that the Holy Spirit put it there,” said Schapiro, the Jewish photographer whose work was highlighted in “Activists And Icons,” a recent exhibit at the Illinois Holocaust Museum. “We found quite a few pictures not seen before, working on the book.”
If you missed the poignant exhibit, Schapiro’s civil rights photos are now found in the new book, “The Fire Next Time,” (Paschen 2019).
It’s a reprint of novelist/playwright/civil rights activist James Baldwin’s influential 1963 tome of the same name, lauded essays on the Black experience, Baldwin’s words now brought to life by more than 100 Schapiro photos. U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-Georgia, whose civil rights work took him to Congress — now in his 17th term in the House — offers the foreword.
“What impresses me particularly about that picture is that it’s the start of the march onto the highway, and what you see behind them is only like 300 people,” Schapiro said. “When we got to Montgomery there were probably 25,000. But after two attempts and ‘Bloody Sunday,’ this third attempt began with just 300 people.”
The images are among the massive collection of the now-85-year-old Chicagoan, who covered the civil rights movement for Life and many other magazines between 1961-1968.
Along the way, he amassed a treasure trove of seminal images of King and the movement as it spread across America. Chatting recently at his Streeterville condo, where the walls overflow with history captured in frames, he shared the stories behind some of the photos.
The Brooklyn native picked up his first camera at age 9 and was hired by Life in ’61.
Today, his work is found in private and public collections internationally, including the Smithsonian Museum, New York Metropolitan Museum, High Museum of Art and Getty Museum. His work has been published in magazines ranging from Look, Rolling Stone and Vanity Fair to Sports Illustrated, Time, Newsweek and People.
It was in 1962 that Schapiro would read a New Yorker essay by Baldwin — the basis for Baldwin’s ’63 book, and words that were destined to launch Schapiro’s civil rights journey.
“I asked Life if I could do an essay on him. They agreed. He agreed, and I started traveling with Jimmy, starting in Harlem, then to North Carolina, Mississippi, New Orleans,” Schapiro recounted.
“It was an experience. I’d spent most of my time in New York, and while I was acquainted with what was happening Down South, it was nothing like actually being there, seeing it.”
Schapiro became great friends with Baldwin, an early voice of the movement who was to become one of the 20th century’s greatest writers — author of such seminal works as “Go Tell It On The Mountain,” “Giovanni’s Room,” and “Notes of A Native Son.”
“We spent time with Medgar Evers. We drove him in our rental car to his house. As a joke, he put a towel over our license plate, because everyone knew we were being spied upon at all times,” Schapiro recounts.
“Three months later, he was shot and killed in his driveway.” The field secretary for the NAACP in Mississippi was assassinated on June 12, 1963.
“I met Jerome Smith, one of the original Freedom Riders. I met John Lewis in Clarksdale in ’63. I spent time with Bob Moses. I was at the training session for Freedom Summer in ’64. I did the Selma March in ’65,” Schapiro says. His photos jump off the page, bringing all of the historic events back to life.
Jerome Smith was with the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE); Lewis was chair of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Both were among the first Freedom Riders traveling the Deep South on Greyhound buses in 1961 to confront continuing segregation on public transportation in the wake of the U.S Supreme Court’s 1960 Boynton v Virginia ruling outlawing it.
Smith was savagely beaten during a Freedom Ride in Mississippi. Lewis was brutally beaten in Selma’s “Bloody Sunday,” March 7, 1965.
The Bob Moses he refers to was the leader of the Council of Federated Organizations’ (COFO) Freedom Summer that brought volunteers into Mississippi to help register black voters. It was on June 21, 1964, that three of those volunteers were abducted and murdered.
The bodies of James Chaney, 21, a black man from Mississippi, Andrew Goodman, 20, and Michael Schwerner, 24, two Jewish men from New York, were found buried 44 days later.
“We heard three civil rights workers had disappeared, so a stringer and I started driving there. When we got to the town’s square, I saw this heavyset, burly sheriff and started taking pictures of him,” Schapiro recalled.
“He came over to me, and while we were sitting in the car, he takes the camera out of my hand, opens it, took out the film, threw it on the ground and gave me back my camera. We didn’t know till later how lucky we were,” he says. “It was Sheriff Rainey.”
Neshoba County Sheriff Lawrence Rainey, his deputy and 16 others, were charged in the Ku Klux Klan murders of the three civil rights workers. Six of the men were convicted. Rainey was acquitted in the so-called “Mississippi Burning” trial of October 1967.
“Outside of that, we were followed constantly,” says Schapiro, who has authored 12 books.
His photos of the ’63 March on Washington, where King delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, include one of baseball pioneer Jackie Robinson with his arms around his son, standing among the marchers.
“There’s Jackie in the middle of his family. There’s Rosa Parks. Everyone was there in their finery. It was a great day,” he recalls.
“King gives his speech. Then Jerome Smith decided what he really wanted was for the protesters to lie on the train tracks outside Washington so that people wouldn’t feel this had been a celebration and would realize it was only the start.”
By 1972, large-format photo news magazines like Life, Look and the Saturday Evening Post had folded, so Schapiro took his talents to Hollywood studios, and some of the greatest photos of American icons of film, music and sports now are also in his collection.
Among his last civil rights assignments from Life magazine was the one that came on April 4, 1968. King had been assassinated, shot on the balcony at the Lorraine Motel, the bullet allegedly coming from the second floor of a rooming house across the street.
“Life said, ‘Get on a plane immediately to Memphis,’” Schapiro recalls.
“I went first to the rooming house. The shooter had stood in the bathtub and leveled his gun on the windowsill. There was still a dirty hand print on the wall, which could only have been made by someone standing in the bathtub.
“Life published it as a full page,” Schapiro says.
“I then went over to the Lorraine Motel. [King confidant] Hosea Williams let me in. I saw Dr. King’s alleged attaché case, with two books, a magazine, some hairspray, and these rumpled shirts. There was still an uneaten sandwich and old Styrofoam cups.
“Suddenly, King’s image came up on the television above it. I did it as one picture,” he says.
“It seemed to me the physical man was gone forever. His material things remained. Yet he hovered above us, and was still there. We heard his voice. It was not a picture that Life ran. But it became an important picture to me.”