Being in the right place at the right time often means the difference between ordinary and extraordinary. Witness to History: Selma Photography of Stephen Somerstein is a perfect example of that kind of timing and is the newest exhibition opening on Saturday, February 26, 2022, at the Upcountry History Museum, a Smithsonian Affiliate.
When Stephen Somerstein, a 24-year-old student and college newspaper editor, got off the bus in Montgomery, Alabama, after an all-night ride from New York City on March 25, 1965, he found himself surrounded by thousands of marchers in the civil rights movement who were heeding Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s call to make their way to the steps of the State Capitol to raise their voices for the right to vote.
With five cameras around his neck and only 15 rolls of film in his bag, Somerstein immediately began taking pictures of those who had finally been able to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge after two previous attempts of trying to peacefully march from Selma to Montgomery. Though only a student, his black and white photos of prominent participants such as Dr. King, Rosa Parks, John Lewis, James Baldwin, Joan Baez and Bayard Rustin, as well as of anonymous demonstrators and bystanders captured the spirit of this critical moment in history like a seasoned professional.
In what are now some of the most iconic images of that historic entrance into Alabama’s capital and the gathering for speeches, visitors can not only see the faces of these impassioned marchers, but also feel the essence of their struggle, the strength of their resiliency, and, as Somerstein noted in an interview, the “seriousness of people bearing their own witness of being on the cusp of something great.”
On view through Sunday, May 15, 2022, the 55 black and white images featured in Witness to History: Selma Photography of Stephen Somerstein bring together a visual narrative of one of the most pivotal moments in America’s civil rights movement.
The Upcountry History Museum is located at 540 Buncombe St., in Greenville, S.C. Hours of operation are Tuesday through Saturday from 10:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m. and Sunday from 1:00 – 5:00 p.m. For more information, call 864-467-3100 or visit www.upcountryhistory.org.