DAVID GREENE, HOST:
This weekend, Selma, Ala., is marking the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday. That's the day police beat demonstrators who were attempting to march to Montgomery in support of voting rights. Some of the most enduring images of that day were captured by a white photographer, the late Spider Martin. Andrew Yeager from member station WBHM brings us the photographer's story. And just a warning - this report does contain some strong racial language.
ANDREW YEAGER, BYLINE: Spider Martin's real introduction to the civil rights movement came on a late night at home in February 1965. He was 25, a photographer for The Birmingham News.
(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)
SPIDER MARTIN: About midnight, I get this phone call from the chief photographer. And he says, Spider, we need you - get you to go down to Marion, Ala. - says there's been a church burned. There been a black man who was protesting, killed. He was shot with a shotgun. His name was Jimmie Lee Jackson.
YEAGER: Martin explains in this video from 1987, he got the call because he was the youngest staff member and no one else wanted to go. That assignment would lead to his most famous work. James Spider Martin grew up near Birmingham. Small in stature, he earned the nickname Spider for his quick moves on the high school football field. He said while he grew up with a few black friends, he was largely ignorant of the injustice blacks faced. That changed once he started covering the Jimmie Lee Jackson case, according to his daughter Tracy.
TRACY MARTIN: He realized it was history, and it was important. He got wrapped up in it.
YEAGER: Jackson's killing helped spur the Selma-to-Montgomery voting rights marches a few weeks later. Martin was in Selma for Bloody Sunday when state troopers attacked protesters. Holding a camera made him just as much a target. He recounted in an interview with Alabama Public Television what happened when a police officer saw him.
(SOUNDBITE OF INTERVIEW)
S. MARTIN: He walks over to me and - plow (ph), hits me in the - right here in the back of the head. And I still got a dent in my head, and I still have nerve damage there. I go down on my knees, and I'm, like, seeing stars and there's tear gas everywhere. And then he grabs me by the shirt, and he looks straight in my eyes, and he just dropped and said, excuse me, I thought you was a [expletive].
YEAGER: Martin kept covering the marchers until they reached Montgomery two and a half weeks later. The University of Texas purchased the Spider Martin collection, which contains thousands of photographs, clippings and other notes - much of it previously unpublished. Even producers of the movie "Selma" used his pictures to re-create scenes for the film. Exhibitions of his work are going up around this anniversary at the Lyndon Johnson Presidential Library, also in New York and, of course, here in Selma. This exhibit at ArtsRevive includes his most noted pictures from the marches. Executive director Martha Lockett says some of her favorites are less recognized. She walks over to a close-up of an officer's leg with his billy club.
MARTHA LOCKETT: It's very energetic, and you know what's getting ready to happen. And to me, that's one of the most dynamic pictures that's in the show.
YEAGER: That artistry was calculated, according to Morehouse College history professor Larry Spruill. He says Martin was one of a handful of photographers on what's dubbed the segregation beat. They were mostly college-educated, white men in their 20s who reflected the liberal optimism of a post-World War II generation.
LARRY SPRUILL: They took complex issues layered in race and made them very simple.
YEAGER: Spruill says Martin Luther King Jr. understood the power of visuals and tipped off photojournalists. And while the optics of Bloody Sunday were credited with shocking middle America, leading to passage of the Voting Rights Act, back then, the pictures were considered disposable. That was partly because in the mid-'60s, photojournalism was beginning to take a backseat to the flash and immediacy of television. Spruill says he found pictures newspapers didn't run with holes punched through them.
SPRUILL: It's like finding original copies of important American history documents trashed.
YEAGER: A similar thing happened to the photographers. Spider Martin's daughter says it was decades before he became known for his civil rights pictures. He died in 2003. And she says he'd be excited about exhibiting his work around this 50th anniversary. But from this interview, it's clear he was uncomfortable with attention on him.
(SOUNDBITE OF INTERVIEW)
S. MARTIN: I mean, it's kind of fun sometimes being a celebrity, you might say, or a bit famous. But then again, I'd rather not be famous.
YEAGER: Still the attention he offered through his camera helped shape American history. For NPR News, I'm Andrew Yeager.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.