Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

The Civil Rights Movement as photographed by Stephen Somerstein April 23, 2015

POWERFUL. HISTORIC. MEMORABLE.

Looking through a window into an exhibit space at Flaten Art Museum.

Looking through a window into the “Selma to Montgomery” exhibit in the Flaten Art Museum at St. Olaf College in Northfield, MN.

That trio of adjectives describes Selma to Montgomery: Marching Along the Voting Rights Trail, an exhibit of 45 black-and-white photos documenting the 1965 Civil Rights Movement through the work of photographer Stephen Somerstein.

I was only eight years old in 1965, living in rural southwestern Minnesota, far removed from what was occurring in Alabama.

The faces of the Civil Rights Marches and Movement include Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Photo by Stephen Somerstein.

Faces of the Civil Rights Movement include Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., left, and his wife, Coretta Scott King, right. This shows a snippet of a photo by Stephen Somerstein.

But the exhibit, showcased at the Flaten Art Museum of St. Olaf College, took me to Alabama in 1965 and into the movement for equality in an up close and personal way.

An overview of a section of the exhibit at St. Olaf College, Northfield, Minnesota.

An overview of a section of the now-closed exhibit at St. Olaf College.

If a picture is worth a thousand words, then Somerstein’s pictures are worth 45,000 words. My one regret is that I did not visit this exhibit until the day before it closed on April 12 thus failing to inform you, my readers, of the opportunity to see this for yourselves.

This portion of a photo by Stephen Somerstein drew my attention.

This portion of a photo by Stephen Somerstein drew my attention.

As I circled the museum space, I studied many of the photos in detail. These images by Somerstein, a then student at City College of New York and editor of the school newspaper, call for close examination. It is in the details that we begin to fully understand, to see the fear, the hope, the defiance, the anger, the love, the determination.

I found myself drawn to hands and arms—those of an interracial couple, that of a union member gripping a sign, activists carrying American flags, a soldier focusing binoculars, a mother cradling her son:

One of my favorite images

One of my favorite photos by Stephen Somerstein.

Skin color matters not, as showcased in this section  of a Stephen Somerstein photo.

Skin color matters not, as showcased in this section of a Stephen Somerstein photo I photographed.

The two things I noticed in this Stephen Somerstein photo: the marcher carrying and American flag and the soldier atop the building scanning the scene with binoculars.

The two things I noticed in this Stephen Somerstein photo: the marchers carrying American flags and the soldier atop the building scanning the scene with binoculars. It’s truly a multi-layered image.

The Teamsters Union

The Teamsters Union Local 239 sent supplies to activists who were marching. This is a selected section of a photo by Stephen Somerstein.

Eyes and words also drew me in:

vote

Bobby Simmons, a member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, wearing zinc oxide to prevent sunburn, wrote VOTE onto his forehead. This is a section of Stephen Somerstein’s portrait of Simmons.

The exhibit featured explanatory information about photos and the movement.

The exhibit featured explanatory information about photos and the movement.

And although I did not participate in the interactive portions of the exhibit created by artist Nancy Musinguzi, I appreciated that visitors could photograph themselves and pen thoughts on working toward justice and equality.

Visitors could photograph themselves at the exhibit and express their thoughts.

Visitors could photograph themselves at the exhibit and express their thoughts.

Opinions expressed in the exhibit polling place.

Opinions expressed in the exhibit polling place.

They could also vote in a People’s Survey. Vote.

A St. Olaf College student staffing the museum makes sure a video is working properly.

A St. Olaf College student staffing the museum makes sure a video is working properly.

The exhibit drew a wide range of interest at St. Olaf College with students in social work, history, art history, gender studies and more viewing the photos, says Flaten Art Museum Director Jane Becker Nelson. The timing of the exhibit—on the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Movement, relating to current day issues and release of the movie, Selma—added to the interest.

Another overview of part of the exhibit.

Another overview of part of the exhibit. Photos displayed are by Stephen Somerstein.

Additionally, Becker Nelson notes that the exhibit connects to the 50th anniversary of the death of St. Olaf graduate James Reeb. (More to come on that in a post next week.)

A chair placed before a Stephen Somerstein photo offers visitors a place to sit and contemplate.

A chair placed before a Stephen Somerstein photo offers visitors a place to sit and contemplate.

This remarkable collection of documentary photos impresses in a deeply personal way. Beyond headlines. Beyond news stories. Beyond the pages of history books. Somerstein’s photos document the humanity of the Civil Rights Movement in the eyes, in the hands, in the stances of individuals. And that connects all of us, no matter our skin color.

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© Copyright 2015 Audrey Kletscher Helbling
Original photos are by Stephen Somerstein. My photos of Somerstein’s images are published here with permission of Flaten Art Museum, St. Olaf College.

Selma to Montgomery was booked through New York-based National Exhibitions & Archives.

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