Growing up as a person of African descent in Sweden made me hungry for role models, so I read about the fight for civil rights in America with fascination. As I took photos around the world, I saw that I was not alone. Blacks and other minorities I met in Europe, South America and the Middle East looked toward leaders like the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as beacons of hope.
When I moved to the United States in 2003, I felt that I was stepping into that history. Being black here means that one stands on the shoulders of those who fought for freedom.
Before I visited Alabama, the American South blended together for me, as I imagine it does for many outsiders, but the photographic landscape of the civil rights movement, and in particular the march from Selma to Montgomery, was much more familiar. State troopers and a sheriff’s posse attacked demonstrators as they marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma on March 7, 1965, 50 years ago, the day now known as Bloody Sunday. Those images and others from that era brought an intimacy to the movement that has endured, showing me how photos could raise awareness.
For the people I met in Selma and Montgomery, the civil rights movement was the war of their youth, and in the area there were monuments and bronze plaques, traditional markers of the movement. But what I will take with me are the stories of those who participated in the march, a wider lens not focused on one or two heroes, but on a community that came together during a time of conflict to make all of our lives better.
“I joined the marchers when they came past my school. Our teacher told us that she couldn’t march but if the class decided to all walk out at the same time, she couldn’t stop us. And that was all I needed to hear, and I left and I joined the marchers and walked from my school to the Capitol steps … I knew that there were some things that I couldn’t do that white kids could do, and I knew that whatever the grown-ups had planned, it was going to change things.”— Evelyn Wilson
“We didn’t have another choice but to do what we did, if we wanted to be accepted, because we weren’t counted as human beings.”— Woodrow Wilson
“My mother told me I could get killed, and I told her we’re all going to die one day, but I was 17 years old and quick so they couldn’t catch me.”— Joe Hopkins
“They were sleeping on the outside, the kitchen, front porch, downstairs, everywhere, because the white hotels would not take them.”— Roderick West, whose family took in white marchers when many others were too afraid
“After I finished cutting [Dr. King’s] hair, I gave him the mirror, and said ‘how do you like the haircut?’ He said, ‘pretty good.’ So when you tell a barber, ‘pretty good,’ that’s kind of an insult. He came back two weeks later … and he waited on me. I remembered that sarcastic statement. So I said, ‘that must have been a pretty good haircut.’ And he said, ‘you all right.’”— Nelson Walden
“Folks were just yelling and crying. And my mother says, ‘Stop crying, stop crying, that’s what they want you to do, stop crying.’ We were heading back to the church. This car pulled up and the lady said, ‘Do you all want a ride?’ … As soon as we got in that car, [my mother] broke down and cried, and it just taught me that in the face of the enemy, you show a strong face, no matter what you are feeling.”— Carrie Grider, who was on the Edmund Pettus Bridge with her mother on Bloody Sunday
“My family was very much involved in voter registration … For those who had gone down [to register] and did not ‘pass’ — which was almost an impossibility because they would be asked dumb questions like, how many seeds in a watermelon or how many bubbles in a bar of soap? — it was just insulting, but for those who had attempted to vote, we still had a celebration for them. Because they showed bravery.”— Gwendolyn Patton
Photographs by Malin Fezehai for The New York Times
Malin Fezehai is a documentary and portrait photographer.