Roger Williams University and Providence Public Library to host exhibition of seldom-seen photos documenting the Selma to Montgomery civil rights march

Display in Rhode Island marks exhibition’s first stop on a national tour

Featuring a series of striking images captured inside the heart of the action during the harrowing Selma to Montgomery civil rights march in Alabama in 1965, an extraordinary exhibition of photographs documenting the pivotal demonstration for freedom will launch its national tour in Rhode Island.

Stephen Somerstein, Marchers on the way to Montgomery as families watch from their porches, 1965. Courtesy of the photographer


Roger Williams University and the Providence Public Library have partnered to bring Freedom Journey 1965: Photographs of the Selma to Montgomery March to the library for public exhibition beginning on Thursday, Nov. 12. The historic and riveting photographs included in the New-York Historical Society exhibition were captured by Stephen Somerstein, a City College of New York student in 1965 who traveled to Alabama to document the march.

A timely look back at a watershed moment in American history, Freedom Journey 1965 coincides with the commemoration of two landmark events – this year’s 50th anniversary of the march from Selma as well as the 150th anniversary of the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery on Dec. 6, 1865. The exhibition marks the culmination of 150 Years Later: The 13th Amendment and Race in America, the university’s yearlong series to celebrate the monumental legislation and to reflect on the current state of race relations in America.

“It’s tempting to regard the civil rights movement – and before that, slavery itself – as distant memories in American history, but there’s no argument that stark disparities and injustices divide our country even today,” says Roger Williams University President Donald J. Farish. “With the national spotlight turned upon the issues affecting people of color across the nation, it is our responsibility as educational institutions to examine racial prejudice and discrimination, and to encourage dialogue toward a more just, civil and humane society.”

“Providence Public Library is proud to partner with Roger Williams University to make this exhibition available to Providence residents as well as all Rhode Islanders,” says PPL Executive Director Jack Martin. “The Library welcomes opportunities like these both to participate and to enable all members of our community to engage in such important and relevant public discourse.”

The Selma to Montgomery march marked a turning point in the civil rights movement, and the 24-year-old Somerstein was on scene with more than 25,000 others in Alabama. With five cameras and several rolls of film, the student newspaper photo editor gained unfettered access to Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, Andrew Young, James Baldwin and other civil rights leaders during the 54-mile march. He also turned his lens to the men, women and children lining the route and viewing the march from their front porches and sidewalks – their expressions of hope, fear and apprehension a poignant reflection of this contentious time.

Until the exhibition launched in New York last January, Somerstein’s photos remained largely out of sight. After retiring in 2008 from a career as a physicist for the Lockheed Martin Company, he revisited his photo collection and embarked upon the effort to stage an exhibition of his remarkable images.

Freedom Journey 1965 features 59 of Somerstein’s photographs, including scenes of civil rights leaders arm-in-arm with priests and nuns, hecklers jeering at the marchers, and Martin Luther King Jr.’s timeless address to a sea of people in front of the Alabama State Capitol. Upon its debut in New York, the exhibition earned recognition as a “powerful new exhibit” from the New York Post and a nod from the New York Times as “grand.”

Members of the public are invited to visit the library for self-guided tours of Freedom Journey 1965 during normal library operating hours. Entrance is free, and no tickets are required. Opening day is Thursday, Nov. 12, and the exhibition will remain on display into February. For more information on visiting hours or directions to the Library, visit http://www.provlib.org/directions-hours.

In anticipation of visits from local school groups, the university and Library are urging educators to obtain materials at no cost – including movie clips, featurettes and more – from the award-winning 2014 film Selma to supplement students’ educational experience. Visit www.selma4students.com for more information.

About RWU: Roger Williams University, with its main campus located on the coast of Bristol, R.I., is a forward-thinking private university with 45 undergraduate majors spanning the liberal arts and the professions, where students become community-minded citizens through project-based, experiential learning. With small classes, direct access to faculty and boundless opportunity for real-world projects, RWU students develop the ability to think critically while simultaneously building the practical skills that today’s employers demand. In the three years since launching its signature Affordable Excellence initiative, the University has established itself as a leader in American higher education by confronting the most pressing issues facing students and families – increasing costs that limit access to college, rising debt and the job readiness of graduates. In addition to its 4,000 undergraduates, RWU is home to more than a dozen graduate programs, a thriving School of Continuing Studies based in Providence as well as Rhode Island’s only law school.

 
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