It may have been the greatest gathering on native soil since the founding of the American Republic.
More than 200,000 people marched on Washington to arrive at the National Mall fifty years ago, assembling there peacefully to demonstrate for civil rights.
Photographer Leonard Freed was there to record with his camera and his own eye the events and those who gathered on August 28, 1963.
“These photographs offer one of our greatest windows into the march,” says Paul Farber, who’s organized a follow-up to Freed’s 1968 book called Black and White America, reprinted by Getty in 2010. “His work takes its perspective from the crowd itself: It’s dignified but uncertain – it’s about how people can come together, but it also set the blueprint for how to work together toward the goal of greater democracy.”
Freed had been working toward that moment for much of his adult life. Once he’d decided on photography as a career, he sought the advice of Edward Steichen at the Museum of Modern Art. Steichen’s advice: skip professional photography and travel the world. And so he did.
“He moved to Europe and lived in Amsterdam, then happened to go to Berlin in 1961 when he heard about the wall being built,” Farber says. “He photographed an African-American soldier guarding the wall, which became seed for an unassigned project on race in America.”
By the time he got to Washington in 1963, he was primed. “Because he wasn’t on assignment, he could approach the story to tell a different story about race,” he says. “It wasn’t to fit a headline, but to use his camera to depict the nuances and complexities of race.”
He recorded the vast impact of that day, when common people, clergy and civil rights leaders came together in Washington, uncertain about whether they might actually be able to change the status quo. In fact, because of the different backgrounds of those involved, the nation did change, from bottom up and from top down. And Freed was there to capture its essence.
“There are views of the perspectives and faces in the crowd,” he says. “And there are images of people inspired by a great leader in Martin Luther King, who in turn is empowered by the people.”
His work will appear in D.C. in two group exhibitions. One, A Day Like No Other: Commemorating the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington, will open at the Library of Congress on Aug. 28 and run through Feb. 28. The second, This Is the Day: Images of the Historic March, will run from Aug. 13 – 30 at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library.
Farber is a contributing essayist to a book also called This Is the Day: The March on Washington, photographs by Leonard Freed, published by Getty, which also features a foreword by Julian Bond and an essay by Michael Eric Dyson.
Their timing couldn’t be better.
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All photographs © Estate of Leonard Freed – Magnum Photos (Brigitte Freed)