Matt Herron walked backwards for 15 miles, threw himself in ditches, created fake press passes and spoke in a southern accent to document the Selma to Montgomery marches, which led to the Voting Rights Act of 1965. While walking with thousands over the course of 18 days and 54 miles, Herron captured the protesters’ stories with a 35mm film camera and his photos making the front page of magazines like Time and Life.
At the Porter College Faculty Gallery on Oct. 27th, history of art and visual culture professor at UC Santa Cruz Martin Berger led a Q&A with Matt Herron, a white photojournalist and activist who documented the civil rights movement in the South.
It took place in the middle of Herron’s exhibition, “I’m Walkin’ for My Freedom,” which consists of black and white film photos of the Selma to Montgomery marches.
The three marches began in Selma and ended at the courthouse in the state capital, Montgomery, where 25,000 participants gathered and successfully dismantled unfair obstacles like literacy tests, which barred black citizens from voting throughout the 20th century.
The walk was dangerous –– demonstrators were beaten by police, and photojournalists were hated for their work. Officers beat Herron with a club.
“African Americans that were offering protection to Matt were offering protection to a white stranger,” Berger said. “They were willing to risk their lives for a total stranger.”
While other photographers wanted to be right there with their cameras to capture prominent activists like Martin Luther King Jr. and to make it in the print, Herron said he didn’t just document the movement to further his career but felt it was something he needed to do — getting the names and stories of his subjects, revisiting them years later and painting a before and after picture of where the activism ended.
“He’s never conceived the photos he shot in the ’60s as income. He sees them as documenting a moment in American history,” Berger said. “His overriding concern has always been educating newer audiences about the civil rights struggle.”
Gallery volunteer and audience member Natalie Ortiz described the exhibit’s ability to remind audiences of this very recent and immense struggle for a group to obtain the right to vote.
“It’s really important that we remember this, especially during this election year,” Ortiz said. “It would be a great injustice to all these Selma marchers if you didn’t vote.”
Despite the long-term efforts, Ortiz said she valued the act of protesting for basic rights like participants of Selma to Montgomery because “it’s imperative for the greater good.”
When Herron moved to the South as a photojournalist, he founded the Southern Documentary project and photographed the efforts of social change with a team of five people. Herron explained the “close knit family culture” and strong values of black individuals who were a part of the movement.
“The strategy of civil rights had been, if we can show the North what is happening, they can pressure the government and can force change” Herron said. “This idea that this group of radical black and white people had formed a shadow party […] that became a moment of truth for the civil rights movement.”
Herron documented the movement as a freelancer, meaning his projects were ones he developed himself. He captured a raw, unpolished depiction of the movement. Figures like Dorthea Lange, known for her photojournalism of the depression era, mentored Herron. He was inspired by Lange’s respect for the people and her interest in their lives.
Two photos showed Doris Wilson, a 20 years old woman who lost her job for participating in the demonstration, marching without shoes. Another photo showed Samuel Newhall, an 8 years old boy, continuing to demonstrate alone in front of the Dallas County Courthouse, despite knowing he would be arrested as a line of police officers approached.
“I cannot imagine where he got the courage to do that,” Herron said of Samuel Newhall. “It had to come from some deep well of frustration and wrong. That was what drove the movement — kids like that and that kind of passion.”
He explained that although the Occupy Wall Street movement was impactful, it could have been more successful like the civil rights movements if the participants had gone into communities and organized beyond just setting up tents in city centers.
“There is the fertile ground in this country for a new movement. I don’t know where or when […] I don’t know what form it will take or whether it will occur, but I think it’s coming,” Herron said. “I hope you have your ears perked up for it.”