“Let Us March On” Showcases Lee Friedlander’s Unseen Civil Rights Photographs

Photo:  Lee Friedlander, Mahalia Jackson (at podium); first row: Mordecai Johnson, Bishop Sherman Lawrence Greene, Reverend Thomas J. Kilgore, Jr., and Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., from the series Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom, 1957, printed later. Gelatin silver print. Yale University Art Gallery, Gift of Maria and Lee Friedlander, hon. 2004. © Lee Friedlander, courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco. Photo courtesy Eakins Press Foundation
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Brown v. Board of Education, Topeka (1954) was an historic moment in the course of the United States. In a unanimous decision of 9-0, the Supreme Court declared state-sponsored segregation in public education was inherently unequal, and a violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

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The ruling came as the first major step in ending apartheid in the United States, which had been operating under conditions of extreme malevolence since the Court legalized segregation in 1896. It was a major victory for the Civil Rights Movement, which had begun taking shape in its wake. Together, they united as one, their voices lifted and amplified for the first time in American history.

Lee Friedlander, Untitled, from the series Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom, 1957, printed later. Gelatin silver print. Yale University Art Gallery, Gift of Maria and Lee Friedlander, hon. 2004. © Lee Friedlander, courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco. Photo courtesy Eakins Press Foundation.

On May 17, 1957, to honor the third anniversary of the decision, more than 25,000 African-American activists answered the call for a Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom in front of the Lincoln Memorial, in Washington, D.C. Here, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his famous address, “Give Us the Ballot,” in which he exhort the President Eisenhower and members of Congress to ensure voting rights for African Americans.

Using call-and-response, Dr. King created a powerful, public sermon that elevated the republic to its highest peak: to serve and protect the people as it had promised, dating back to the Declaration of Independence.

“Give us the ballot (Yes), and we will no longer plead to the federal government for passage of an anti-lynching law; we will by the power of our vote write the law on the statute books of the South (All right) and bring an end to the dastardly acts of the hooded perpetrators of violence,” Dr. King commanded.

As he spoke, a young white man made his way through the ranks, camera in hand documenting the scene. Lee Friedlander, just 22 years old, was given full access to the movement. Here, at the outset of his career, Friedlander revealed his talents and his skills, showing us not just the leadership the people who made it so. His photographs are heavily layered affairs, capturing the complexity of the human spirit as the individual commingles with the group, always taking care to create a balance between that which we expect—and that which we don’t.

By “working on the edge,” the artist’s term for his practice of weaving among the demonstrators and taking on-the-ground photographs, Friedlander compels viewers to acknowledge the courage of these men, women, and children, dressed in their Sunday best, who gathered in the nation’s symbolic core—then a Jim Crow space—to stand up for their civil rights. The photographs present the heart and soul of this nation, one that refuses to be held down by the forces of discrimination and oppression.

After capturing these breathtaking photographs of Dr. King, the crowd, and luminaries including Ella Baker, Harry Belafonte, Mahalia Jackson, and Rosa Parks, Friedlander struggled to find a publisher for his work. The mainstream media of the day was disinclined to publish empowering photographs of the Civil Rights Movement during its early stages. Friedlander was undeterred by their response, continuing to show the work privately until the opportunity to share the work presented itself.

That day has finally come. Now, on the sixtieth anniversary of this historic event, Yale University Art Gallery in New Haven, CT, presents Let Us March On: Lee Friedlander and the Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom, currently on view through July 9, 2017. The exhibition, which was inspired by the 2015 publication of Friedlander’s photographs by Eakins Press Foundation, is the first time the photographs have ever been shown publicly.

Tuesday, April 4 marks 49th anniversary of Dr. King’s murder, for which the United States government was found guilty in 1999 (the full transcript of the case can be downloaded here). The Prayer Pilgrimage offers a quiet moment for reflection of his brief but transformative legacy, his leadership, and his understanding. We may draw from his work, his words, and his vision for courage and strength, for the fight for justice and equality are woven into the fabric of the nation itself. The struggle continues…

Miss Rosen is a journalist covering art, photography, culture, and books. Her byline has appeared in L’Uomo Vogue, Whitewall, The Undefeated, Dazed Digital, Jocks and Nerds, and L’Oeil de la Photographie. Follow her on Twitter @Miss_Rosen.