Covering Selma With a Camera: “You Didn’t Go Anywhere Alone”

By Phil Sandlin

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Phil Sandlin, after being told to get a haircut, covered the Selma march for UPI.

Those of us at the Edmund Pettus bridge 50 years ago didn’t know what the impact of the event would be on our nation. And, quite frankly, those journalists covering Selma were more intent on getting the story right and the pictures in focus than in history. Just getting back to our motels from the march was a concern to all of us.

I can remember AP photo editor Jim Laxson screaming at me and my UPI photo editor, Bill Lyons, to jump into his car where AP photographer Horace Court was pounding on the dashboard in anger over the events that we had just photographed. There was no thought of leaving two UPI photographers on the street as far as Laxson was concerned; we were all one where safety was concerned.

Horace’s reaction was the surface of what we all knew was going to happen in that sea of discontent. We just didn’t know when.

I knew Selma was different when on my arrival in Alabama to cover the voter registration story I was told by Public Safety Director E. Wilson Baker that I’d have to get a haircut before I’d be given a press credential.

Life magazine photographer Charlie Moore, who was from Montgomery, and I were given directions to a local barbershop where we had our locks shorn with silent indifference. I think we were driven there by a policeman. I can thank my maker that I was born in the South because I’m not sure Charlie and I would have made it from the barber shop with any hair otherwise. We laid the accents on thick under the good ole boy stares.

Baker, while visually checking us out, spotted a tattoo on my hand which he likened to a tattoo worn by a Mexican gang called the Pachucos and he started calling me “Chuco.”

During the days leading up to the march, we were covering demonstrations as well as lines of locals trying to sign up to vote. You didn’t go anywhere alone. I usually found myself with AP photographer Bill Hudson, or Horace Court, looking for a different picture but not straying far from my competition to get it unless we could tie up with one of our writers. Our nights would find us in one of the local churches waiting for Martin Luther King Jr. to arrive and give one of his many moving calls for non-violent protest. We always had someone keeping an eye on the streets or on parked cars down the block.

Almost every night was spent in church—hot, dark, and very crowded. There was always electricity in the air. You could feel the sweat running down your back as you waited for Dr. King to arrive. Those seated had their little fans, which looked like cardboard on a popsicle stick, waving close to their faces. Expecting. A little girl would stand in a pew upstairs and start singing. In a minute the building would be moving in concert and I, only one of a few whites there, would find myself tapping my toes to an old Southern hymn. Looking around I would see AP photographer Bill Hudson, who would just smile as we were waiting for a speaker.

There were always protests in nearby communities where we would have to rush to get the day’s confrontation. We depended a lot on the TV crews—NBC, CBS, ABC—for information. We were very close to the television crews since we all covered the same civil rights stories and we had a lot of time to get to know each other. Covering each other’s back was the only way to work some of those stories. Finding out your gas mask wasn’t 100 per cent effective was important to know and being around these guys was the way to find out. A lot of time when a TV crew would arrive at a protest and the lights would go on, things would start to happen. Before you knew it, you’d be reaching for your gas mask.

Prior to the march, before all of the crowds flooded Selma, protesters started sleeping in the street in front of the Bethel AME Church with blankets for cover. This unsettled the police and made for a lot of tension. The wire services and television networks also had to be there, sitting in their cars or standing by the church in case of trouble. Long nights.

After the Selma to Montgomery march has concluded, I was contacted by a congressman who, for the Congressional Record, wanted to know exactly what I had witnessed while covering those sleeping in front of the church. This congressman wasn’t happy when I wouldn’t admit seeing the protesters indulging in sex. And the fact was I never saw anything like that. We were surrounded with the protesters trying to get a night’s rest despite flash units lighting the area.

When the Selma march started toward Montgomery, it was a photographer’s holiday. Soldiers, state troopers, hecklers, and protesters kept us busy. While marching with the protesters we had to constantly ship our film, first back to Selma for processing and transmission, and then it got shipped to Montgomery.

The days on the march were 20 hours or longer. It was frustrating because as a photographer you were recalling dynamic images of emotions being displayed but we weren’t able to see any of our images since they were being handled away from the site. You might see another photographer who would compliment you on a picture you had taken but that was a day old and you just couldn’t remember all of the images you had made. Most your images were black and white unless you were given the job of providing a color photo, which was not often in those days because getting it processed and transmitted was time-consuming.

UPI had rented a truck with a 16-foot covered bed which fellow photographer Joe Hollaway and I took turns driving in the procession. We parked the truck beside the tents set up for the marchers where we would open the back and try to relax while keeping our eyes open for trouble. We would be joined by people like actor Gary Merrill, husband of actress Bette Davis, who had driven his Mercedes convertible with a tent strapped on the back to Selma. Nelson Rockefeller’s nephew dropped by to relax after the march had halted for the day. The marchers would be eating or listening to various entertainers and some would want to sit on our truck tailgate and talk. Names like Joan Baez, Harry Belafonte, Odetta, and Peter, Paul, and Mary were among celebrities who helped entertain the protesters.

While a shot of Wild Turkey might have gone well while sitting with our legs dangling off the back of the truck, we were very much aware of the danger of being caught with booze.

It made the hair on the back of your neck stand up as the sea of marchers, singing “We Shall Overcome,” moved toward the state capitol. A platform had been placed in front of the capitol and on it Peter, Paul and Mary, along with other entertainers, were singing. I was busy trying to get a vantage point to get a picture of that wall of marchers as they came toward the capitol but couldn’t find a place. I looked at the platform but a cop nodded his head “no”.

My salvation came when I spotted one of the civil rights leaders I had covered when he was attacked by rednecks during an earlier confrontation. I tugged at his pant leg and asked if he would take my Leica and shoot a couple of images of the crowd. Without a moment’s hesitation, now Congressman John Lewis performed like a pro, taking his time for composition and then handed a very happy photographer his camera back.

The march concluded but our coverage didn’t. Viola Liuzzo was shot and killed by the KKK while shuttling fellow activists to the airport after the march. That started a whole new round of stories. We would be off, trying to find pictures to take. But Selma was different. We knew it when we left.

I was in my office in Columbia, South Carolina, a month after Selma when my phone rang. I heard someone of the other end say “Hey, Chuco.” It was Wilson Baker, who, with his police lieutenant, was traveling through Columbia from Washington where they had to testify in front of a Congressional committee about Selma. He wanted to have coffee. Over our time in Selma we had in a sense become friends. I never told him where marchers were going to demonstrate and he never asked for another haircut.
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Phil Sandlin was a United Press International photographer when he covered the 1965 Selma march. In 1974 he joined the Associated Press; when he retired in 2001 he was the AP’s Florida photo editor in Miami. He wrote this remembrance of  Selma for Connecting, an email newsletter written by Paul Stevens for current and former AP staff.

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