Fifty years ago, nearly 250,000 people from across the United States traveled to Washington, D.C. to march for civil rights. Students, clergymen, women, children, the young and the old all convened on the National Mall in stifling heat and humidity, holding up signs demanding equality for African-Americans.
To celebrate the historic march’s anniversary, the President’s Office, American Studies Department, Africana Studies Department, History Department, Art Department and the Mellon Foundation have brought the renowned traveling photo exhibition “This is the Day: Leonard Freed’s Photographs of the 1963 March on Washington” to Vassar’s Palmer Gallery. The exhibit will run from Thursday, September 26 through Saturday, October 12. The photo series was previously shown at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC and the New York Public Library.
The 1963 march is most famous for Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, but visitors at the Palmer Gallery will gain a different perspective of the event. Rather than focus on the icons of the Civil Rights Movement, the late photographer (1929-2006) chose to snap shots of the marchers themselves—capturing their courage, solidarity and exhaustion under the beating sun.
“Our students are very much interested in making the world a better place, and when you see these images of the march you realize that these people all took time away from their studies, their work, on this incredibly hot day—I think it was 95 degrees—and marched,” said Professor of History Maria Hoehn. “We always think about Martin Luther King—the icons of the movement, but all these little people made a huge difference too. It couldn’t have happened without them, and it’s important to remember that.”
Hoehn was instrumental in bringing the exhibition to the College. A specialist in German history, Hoehn developed an interest in Freed after seeing his photographs of African-American G.I.s in Germany. She met Freed nine years ago at an exhibition in Beacon, N.Y. and has developed a friendship with his wife, Brigitte, who lives in Garrison, N.Y. Brigitte Freed organized the traveling exhibition to commemorate the anniversary, and helped Hoehn organize its showing at Vassar.
Freed, a Jewish American from Brooklyn, N.Y., lived in Europe from 1952 to 1970 before settling down in the Hudson River Valley. According to Hoehn, while Freed was abroad, he first felt removed from the American Civil Rights Movement. However, in 1961, after taking his famous photograph of an African-American G.I. guarding the Berlin Wall, all of that changed. “Here stood a black soldier guarding the Cold War frontier—guarding German democracy, and he wasn’t even allowed to vote at home,” said Hoehn. “It really made [Freed] realize what’s wrong with America, so he decided to go back to the states regularly and photograph the civil rights movement.”
“For me it was this really interesting example of someone having to be outside of their own country in order to understand the real dilemmas of American democracy,” explained Hoehn. “So he kept coming back to America, obviously for the march, but also to travel through the south to go to all the different events where King spoke, to keep a record, because he felt that if he didn’t show Americans what’s wrong, then he was just as guilty as everyone else.”
Hoehn included Freed’s photo of the African-American G.I. in Berlin because it represents the start of his involvement in the U.S.Civil Rights Movement. She also incorporated another photo that is not from the march, an image of Martin Luther King in Baltimore after he received the Nobel Peace Prize. The two images will be facing each other in the gallery. “I thought that it created a nice conversation,” said Hoehn. “Because for [Freed] it started with the G.I. and then culminated in King being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.”
The exhibition also commemorates the 65th anniversary of President Truman’s executive order to integrate the military. The inclusion of the photograph of the G.I. is a nod to the Vassar-West Point Initiative. “We’re going to use that also for the cadets and for our students to talk about racism in the military,” said Hoehn. Paul Farber, an American Studies and Urban Studies professor at Haverford College who is also a co-curator of the exhibition, will give a brief introduction about the show on September 26 at 5 p.m. in the Villard Room. A discussion panel led by area residents who attended the march—including Brigitte Freed—will follow. Poughkeepsie-based poet Bettina Gold Wilkerson will conclude the program with a spoken-word poem she wrote for the event.
“50 years seems like a long time ago, but when you look at these images you realize—wow, they’re people like you and me, they look like we do, and to think that 50 years ago people couldn’t vote in this country is stunning,” remarked Hoehn.
She continued, “I think giving a larger historical context makes students aware that they are working in a longer tradition to make this country a better society, and it’s important to honor the people who marched because they changed history.”