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Photographer Steve Schapiro Recalls Shooting the Images That Marked the Civil Rights Era

In 1963, Steve Schapiro was one of 14 photographers Life magazine sent to cover the March for Jobs and Freedom on Washington, which would go down in history as the gathering where Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech. At the time, he didn’t know it would be historic.

The most famous image Schapiro shot that day shows black baseball great Jackie Robinson standing at the front of a group of marchers with his arm around his son, David. That image—actually, a stylized watercolor version of it—later appeared on a U.S. postage stamp commemorating the 50th anniversary of the march.

“When you’re involved in a moment, you don’t know it’s going to be important,” Schapiro said in a recent phone conversation. “You don’t know if 50 years later people would have an interest in it. I did the best I could. I tried to find images that really worked, to show people as they were.”

When Schapiro agreed to give a talk on January 19 at the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center, he didn’t know it would be on the cusp of Donald Trump’s inauguration and another march on Washington, one inspired by the 1963 march. But the timing gives his photos special resonance now.

“There was an enormous amount of people,” Schapiro recalled of the 1963 march. “There were a lot of signs. There was a lot of excitement and a sense of people really wanting to move forward. They had such high hopes.”

In March, Schapiro has a book coming out of his civil rights photography called “The Fire Next Time” (with an introduction by Rep. John Lewis), and there will be a retrospective of his career at IHLMEC in 2018.

A native New Yorker, Schapiro lives in Chicago now, having moved to the Windy City in 2007. He discovered photography at summer camp at the age of 9 and spent years wandering the New York taking street photos in the style of Henri Cartier-Bresson, but he didn’t take it seriously as a career until after he failed at being a novelist.

“I wrote a book,” he said. “It had 4 really good pages. It was a big book. I realized writing was not my thing. I wasn’t describing things in a way to create enough of a picture. It was too talky. There was too much philosophy.”

Schapiro studied photography with the photojournalist W. Eugene Smith, who helped him develop an interest in social documentary. His first major assignment was a photo essay about the lives of migrant workers in Arkansas; originally published in the Catholic literary magazine Jubilee, it was picked up by The New York Times Magazine. He became interested in the civil rights movement after reading James Baldwin’s 1963 essay collection “The Fire Next Time.” He requested and received an assignment to do a photo essay on Baldwin for Life, and for a few weeks they traveled together from Harlem through Mississippi and to New Orleans. Their time together, he said, was hard to describe. “He was always on the brink— He was very, very high energy. We were always on the cusp of being late.”

Schapiro was present when Baldwin and Jerome Smith, one of the original Freedom Riders, met with Bobby Kennedy to discuss civil rights. Kennedy, Schapiro said, seemed to have expected Baldwin and Smith to tell him that the Kennedy administration was doing a great job for black people. Instead, Smith announced, “This meeting nauseates me,” and walked out. “From that moment,” Schapiro said, “the Kennedys became more active in civil rights.” (Schapiro would later cover Bobby’s own presidential campaign in 1968.)

In 1965, Schapiro covered the historic march from Selma, Alabama, to Montgomery.

“The first attempt to do the Selma march they called Bloody Sunday,” Schapiro recalled. “John Lewis led the walk across the [Edmund Pettis] Bridge. They were met by troopers on horses. A lot of people were injured. The second attempt to cross the bridge was by Dr. King. He came to the end and there were horsemen with batons. Dr. King kneeled before them. The third time was the actual march. The enormous march on Selma was only 300 people on the highway. 300 people are responsible for the Voting Rights Act.”

Schapiro marched along with them for 5 days, toting several cameras with different lenses and loaded with black and white and color film. “There were a lot of photo opportunities with strong content and emotion,” he said.

But the picture he considers the best from that march is one that never appeared in Life. He only rediscovered it three years ago on an old contact sheet. It shows King, Lewis, Andrew Young, and Ralph David Abernathy at the head of the march. A line of cars with state troopers stretches out behind them; a helicopter flies overhead. Abernathy reads the newspaper as he marches. The others look past the photographer at the road up ahead. “Everyone is in his own world,” said Schapiro, “not looking at the camera.”

Schapiro said that he never faced anti-Semitism anywhere, even when traveling in the Deep South. “I get along with other people easily,” he explained.

As the era of big photo magazines drew to a close in the early 1970s, Schapiro moved to Los Angeles and reinvented himself as a movie and celebrity photographer. He shot the film stills for “The Godfather” and “Taxi Driver”, the first-ever cover of People magazine, and a series of photos of David Bowie, which were published in another book last year.

In Chicago, though, Schapiro has returned to his activist roots. He’s been very involved with Father Michael Pfleger, the South Side activist priest, and last year published a book-long photo essay documenting life at Misericordia, a residential community for developmentally disabled people in West Rogers Park.

“These are people who before would spend their lives in their rooms watching TV, at most,” he said. “There’s a 31-acre campus with 600 people, and a 400-person waiting list, and they’re active from morning till night. There are athletes, there’s dancing. The whole person seems to develop. It’s a very joyous place.”


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