The Legacy of Spider Martin’s Selma

mlk_150As published in B-Metro.

Tracy Martin shares her father’s iconic photography, which documented the 1965 events that led to Bloody Sunday in Selma. 

“Spider, we could have marched, we could have protested forever, but if it weren’t for guys like you, it would have been for nothing. The whole world saw your pictures. That’s why the Voting Rights Act passed.”

—Martin Luther King, 1965

 

You know the images. You’ve seen them before. The iconic black and white photographs showing Alabama troopers beating peaceful protesters on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama—a seminal turning point in the civil rights movement now known as BloodySunday. But you may not know the story of the young photographer who captured the defining moments of the struggle for voting rights.

The man behind the camera? Spider Martin.

In February of 1965, veteran reporters at The Birmingham News assigned the rookie photographer Martin to cover the seemingly insignificant story in Marion, Alabama, of a young African-American deacon, Jimmie Lee Jackson, who’d been shot and killed by an Alabama State Trooper during a peaceful protest over voter registration practices—former state trooper James Bonard Fowler was charged with murder in 2007 and pleaded guilty to manslaughter in 2010.

Led by John Lewis, chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and Hosea Williams of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, on March 7, 1965, 600 people gathered to march the 50 miles from Selma to Montgomery to demand voting rights for African-Americans. At the time, despite the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, literacy tests and other discriminatory practices barred African-Americans from exercising their power at the ballot box. That day Martin captured images of unspeakable police brutality and the outrage sparked by the moments of high drama, violence, poignancy, and unity. And after that day, Martin was no longer the unknown, naïve photographer sent to cover a story deemed unworthy.

Even after the editors told him he’d completed his assignment, Martin continued to cover what is referred to as the “Selma Campaign.” Embedded by choice for the following five weeks, he wielded his cameras as a weapon far more powerful than the troopers’ guns, Billy sticks, cattle prods, and tear gas. Experiencing the blast of national and international exposure changed Martin’s life and perspective forever, but his work was largely ignored in his hometown. The News editors and Alabamians wanted to move on, and Martin soon started working as a photographer forBirmingham magazine during the late 1960s.

Back in the day of Kodak film and dark rooms, before cell-phone activists and digital cameras, professional photographers held a certain celebrity status, and Martin fit the bill. As a fashion and advertising photographer, he transitioned easily into the groovy ’70s. Short in stature, he had a big presence and exuded a frenetic, almost manic energy. Typically clad in a black T-shirt and jeans, cigar hanging from of his lips, he cruised around town on his Yamaha motorcycle, later jet-setting internationally for one of his wealthy corporate clients.

As time passed, Martin’s images faded from most people’s memories, stored somewhere in the recesses of The Birmingham News building, resurrected annually in the national press with the anniversary of Bloody Sunday. During the 1980s, Martin was able to retrieve his images, which had supposedly been purged, with the assistance of a helpful receptionist. Once he retained his collection, he stored the images in a fireproof lock box. Martin’s daughter, Tracy, says few people were interested in remembering the violent struggle he’d documented. Only authors and academics contacted him for permission to reprint his images.

Locally, the Birmingham Library was the first to showcase his work. The Birmingham Civil Rights Institute followed shortly in 1992. Around that time, the Smithsonian included several of his pictures in its exhibit Seeing is Believing, now part of the permanent archives of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture.

Using the images he originally sent to The Birmingham Newswhen covering the historic events, Martin started to produce traveling exhibitions and organized print exhibitions and began booking institutions and universities across the country. Around that time, Martin had also reignited his love for hiking, carrying his old-fashioned waterproof Minolta camera to capture the moments.

Then, in 2003, Martin died unexpectedly, and two years passed before Tracy could sort through the box of negatives and documents in the lock box. When she did, she discovered notes, journals, an unpublished book (written when Martin was 27), and images she had no idea existed—1,000 images documenting George Wallace’s 1968 presidential campaign. Apparently, Martin had agreed to shoot the campaign even though he refused to vote for Wallace.

Once Tracy mustered the courage to sort through her father’s legacy, her life took a new direction. Now, when she’s not in overalls farming her land in Blount County, creating her artwork, or celebrating the local Day of the Dead celebration she founded in Martin’s honor, she’s working to ensure Martin’s contribution to the movement survives and thrives.

Don Carleton, executive director of the Briscoe Center at the University of Texas at Austin and a specialist in U.S. history, met Tracy last year after she contacted the Lyndon B. Johnson Library about Martin’s body of work. After visiting Birmingham and seeing Spider’s collection, Carleton acquired all of Spider’s primary material for the Briscoe Center’s permanent archives. “What is distinctive about Martin is he documented Bloody Sunday when most people were ignoring it. His photographs are very important documents of the civil rights movement because this was direct catalyst for the Voting Rights Act of 1965,” Carleton says. The Briscoe Center operates in part as a traditional archive and library as well as a museum. But the Center isn’t “dead storage.” “We’re living history. We facilitate and support projects based on our collections,” Carleton says.

Amy Bowman, photographs archivist at the Briscoe Center, says Martin’s collection is comprised of thousands of images. Open to the public for research and projects, the Briscoe Center’s photojournalism archives contain approximately 4 million photographs by more than 40 nationally renowned photojournalists.

Last year, at the Lyndon B. Johnson Library’s Civil Rights Summit, President Barack Obama, First Lady Michelle Obama, and Congressmen John Lewis were attending the library’s exhibit when they were struck by one of six photographs on loan from the Briscoe Center’s collections: the picture Martin took of Representative Lewis as a young man being beaten by an Alabama state trooper.

Every day, Tracy is “knocked off her feet” by her father’s accomplishments, something she took for granted for so many years. She is honored by the privilege but often overwhelmed by the logistical burden of funding, scanning (one scan takes fifteen minutes), cataloguing, working with filmmakers, and communicating with writers, universities, and institutions interested in his work.

But the bond between Tracy and her father has always been strong. As a child, her father encouraged her to be fiercely independent, and when he raced motorcycles, so did she, competing against the boys at the Concord Motorcross near Hueytown, where she grew up. Instead of attending college, Tracy enrolled in  “the Spider Martin school of life,” assisting her father for 15 years, traveling with him while honing her own talent as a photographer. One day, tired of being called “Spider Junior,” she decided to forge her own identity. She became a welder. Now, as Tracy reflects, she has a renewed connection to her father: “I’ve been collaborating with my father since his death. I will continue to work with him until mine,” she says.

Recently, when Tracy heard about Selma, the movie being coproduced by Harpo Productions and Plan B Entertainment, she contacted the director, Ava DuVernay, via a Spider Martin Twitter page she created. The movie documents the same events in Selma that Spider did all those years ago. DuVernay called Tracy and Martin’s images became a reference point to frame the camera angles during the filming. His photographs also provided the details to make the recreation more authentic and historically accurate. In one shot, DuVernay placed a Daisy Dixie Cup on the podium as seen in Martin’s picture. In another, she replicates white boys holding Confederate flags, shooting a bird, and laughing.Selma opens on Dec. 25.

March 2015 marks the 50th anniversary of the passage of the Voting Rights Act—a key section now overturned by the 2013 Supreme Court decision in Shelby v. Holder—precipitated, in large measure, by the undeniable injustices Martin witnessed and recorded.

Fifty years ago, Martin put a human face on what so many had refused to acknowledge. Today, Tracy has restored his legacy to the public and ensured that the world will always remember the events of 1965 through Spider Martin’s lens.


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