Selma-to-Montgomery March for Voting Rights in 1965
Artist: James Karales
Medium: Photographic print
Citation: Selma-to-Montgomery March for Voting Rights in 1965, 1965. James Karales (1930-2002). Photographic print. Located in the James Karales Collection, Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library, Duke University. Photograph © Estate of James Karales.
Rights Holder: Located in the James Karales Collection, Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library, Duke University. Photograph © Estate of James Karales.
Engage! Theme: Participation
In this photograph, individuals march from Selma to the state capital of Montgomery, Alabama, to demonstrate for access to political rights. Photographer James Karales covered the four-day march for voting rights along its 54-mile journey, illustrating the determination of civil rights workers.
At the front, four figures march in step, setting a brisk pace for the rest of the line, which seems to have no end. As they traverse a grassy hill, a few wave American flags just above their heads—symbols of the freedom and equal rights they strive to claim.
Yet, despite the group’s bold advance, two-thirds of the composition is filled with dark clouds and the great expanse of an impending storm, a metaphor for the threat of violence. Karales’s photograph documents the third attempt to hold this march, the first two having been halted by violence or the threat of violence.
On the third attempt, 25,000 participants gathered at the Alabama state capitol on March 25, 1965. The march garnered national attention for its cause and helped push President Lyndon Johnson to sign the Voting Rights Act on August 7, 1965.
Karales places the camera below and at an angle to the action so that the viewer looks up to the participants. This point of view emphasizes the drama of the marchers’ defiance of nature and prejudice to pursue their rights. The challenge of the long journey, as indicated in the endless line of marchers, also reminds viewers of the difficulties African Americans had to overcome to attain equal rights.
Karales was born to Greek immigrants in Canton, Ohio, trained as a photojournalist, and in the 1960s worked for Lookmagazine, where this photo was originally published. It quickly became an icon of the civil rights movement.
In one word, how would you describe this image? Share your word either with the person next to you or with the larger group and explain why you chose the word.
This photograph captures a moment during the four-day march for voting rights in 1965. The participants marched 54 miles from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. Where is the photographer in relation to the scene depicted? What do you think he is telling us about this event?
The photograph was meant to document the event—it was eventually published in Look magazine—but it is not totally unbiased. The photographer suggests to us his perspective—literally and figuratively—of the event, but invites our consideration of it as well. Do you feel drawn into this image or kept at a distance? Why?
Further Discussion Questions and Activity Ideas:
Why do people choose to make a political statement by marching? How and why is it effective? Is there a difference between a protest and a parade? Compare Karales’s photograph to other images in the Engage! set depicting parades—the Gay Pride parade and the Suffrage parade. All three images suggest that parades and marches are peaceful, yet we know that’s not always the case. In fact, the march from Selma to Montgomery was halted twice due to violence or the threat of violence. Think about the role of aggression in being civically engaged. Is there a place for it? How would your reaction to these three iconic images—all reflecting major social and political struggles for equality in America—change if aggression were depicted?
Picturing America (brief description of image, teacher resources).
Steven Kasher, The Civil Rights Movement: A Photographic History, 1954–68. Foreword by Myrlie Evers-Williams. (New York: Abbeville Press, 1996).
Christopher Wren, “Turning Point for the Church.” Look 29 (May 18, 1965): 31.
Martin Luther King Jr. “I Have a Dream” speech (1963); “Letter from Birmingham Jail” (1963).
National Voting Rights Museum and Institute, Selma, Alabama.
Nina Simone, “Mississippi Goddam,” 1964.