In the 1960s, Steve Schapiro captured some of the most inspiring (and chilling) images of the Civil Rights Movement—from Martin Luther King Jr. banding together with fellow activists during the historic Selma march to the image of his motel room just hours after his murder.
Schapiro’s entry into the Civil Rights movement came as a freelance photographer for LIFE magazine in the early 1960s, when he was in his late twenties. After reading James Baldwin’s“The Fire Next Time,” an essay on race in America that appeared in The New Yorker, Schapiro pitched a photo essay on the author and activist to LIFE and began traveling with him on a speaking tour spanning Harlem, North Carolina, Mississippi, and New Orleans.
One striking image from this series shows Baldwin in Louisiana, posing in front of the “Colored Entrance Only” sign of a local ice cream parlor, while a white employee of the store peers suspiciously through the blinds. The image—along with shots of David Bowie, Samuel Beckett, and Robert F. Kennedy—is included in “Heroic Times,” an exhibition on view through January 27th at Howard Greenberg Gallery in New York.
Steve Schapiro, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., His Wife, Coretta, John Lewis, and OtherActivists March for Voting Rights, 1965. ©Steve Schapiro, courtesy Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York.
The eye-opening experience traveling through the South with Baldwin changed Schapiro. “I saw a world which I had not really known about that well, since I was always a New Yorker,” he tells me. “That got me involved and interested in the Civil Rights movement, and I started getting assignments from LIFE and other magazines to follow what was happening. That culminated in the Selma march—and the killing of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.”
Schapiro had taken photos of King before Selma—in Birmingham, Alabama; and Clarksdale, Mississippi—but his images from the famous 1965 march are especially evocative. Those scenes come from the third and final attempt of Civil Rights activists to travel by foot from Selma, Alabama, to Montgomery, the state’s capital, in order to push for African-American voting rights. The first attempt on March 7th (in which King had not participated) ended in an outburst of police-orchestrated violence that went down in history as “Bloody Sunday.” A second try two days later—with King in attendance—also ended prematurely, with the Civil Rights leader taking a knee when confronted by armed cops.
A group of over 3,000 people would eventually leave Selma on March 21st, this time protected by National Guard members. It’s this event that Schapiro would help immortalize for LIFE. He photographed marchers, and King, as they made their way some 54 miles to Montgomery; Schapiro carried around four or five different Nikon cameras, allowing him to switch between black-and-white and color film.
“I like to work as a fly on the wall, predominantly,” he says, when I asked him whether or not he had much direct contact with King. “If I’m talking to someone, and they’re interested in the conversation, they’re not being themselves.” The goal, he suggests, is to take a picture that conjures a certain essence, and “the best way I can do that is being as inconspicuous and quiet as I can.”
Schapiro recalls a specific mood in the air in Selma. “When I looked at my contact sheets after, I noticed that Dr. King seemed to look into the crowd with a sense of foreboding,” he says. “He was getting death threats, and I think [he felt] that something might happen at any time.” In one particularly moving image, we see King gazing almost unwarily directly at the photographer. An American flag is unfurled over his head; the composition in general is cramped, almost uneasy, with hands of other marchers (and of a journalist, bearing a small microphone) pressing in on King.
One of the photographer’s most powerful images from Selma (that doesn’t include King) depicts an anonymous young man, his face covered in white flour, the single word “VOTE” scrawled across his forehead. Schapiro wasn’t the only one to snap a picture of this protester. “Bruce Davidson did a wide shot that became a postage stamp, actually,” Schapiro says. “But somehow my picture stood out—maybe because of its simplicity, or the look in his eyes. In certain situations, with very different photographers, sometimes one photograph stands out.”
Schapiro’s final King-related assignment for LIFE was a tragic one: The magazine sent him to Memphis to shoot the aftermath of his assassination on April 4th, 1968. “When I got there I first went to the boarding house [Bessie Brewer’s rooming house] where the shots were fired from,” he recalls. “There was a dirty handprint on the wall, and it was obvious that the assailant had stood in the bathtub and leveled his gun on the ledge.
“I photographed that, and then I went to the motel room that King had been in. There was his attache case, his books, coffee cups—and then his image came on the television set. I photographed all of it as one picture, and it is, to me, an important picture.” The Civil Rights pioneer’s life may have ended in tragedy, but “his spirit still hovered over,” Schapiro says. This eerily elegiac image, with its mundane details—a small carton of milk, some half-eaten food, a copy of King’s own 1963 book Strength To Love tucked into his case—are in striking contrast to the outsized, larger-than-life legacy of the man himself.