Fifty years ago, activists in Alabama called for people to come from the far corners of the country to participate in what would become one of the most significant events in the history of the civil rights movement: a five-day march for voting rights from Selma to Montgomery.
More than two thousand miles away, the small college town in eastern Washington was buzzing over the news of the day in Selma that came to be named “Bloody Sunday,” when state troopers and a local posse attacked 600 marchers on March 7. Two days later, a second march was turned around amid fears of a confrontation. It was called “Turnaround Tuesday.” That night a minister who had come from Boston to participate was beaten and murdered by the KKK.
“People throughout the United States were horrified that people were being treated this way,” says Jim Barker, a WSU staff member and photographer who found that his skills put him in the path of history.
On March 19, a Friday afternoon, Barker got a phone call from a young minister working with the Koinonia House. A group of citizens from campus and town had pooled their money to send three people to Selma. “They told me as a photographer, it would be my job to bring something back,” says Barker.
That night at a meeting, the group also elected to send ASWSU President David Warren ’65 and Robert Cole, who was teaching economics.
The men hurried home to pack their bags and two hours later were on their way to Spokane to catch a red-eye to Chicago. From Chicago they flew to Montgomery where they were picked up by a black couple who drove them to Selma.
Adjusting to the new landscape, the passengers were wide-eyed. They noticed a state trooper following their car and Barker reached for his camera. “But we were cautioned not to turn around,” says Warren. “We didn’t want to be giving the police an opportunity to stop us and harass us.”
They later found out that other protesters heading to Montgomery sat down on the floorboards to stay out of view.
They arrived at Brown Chapel, the organizers’ headquarters, to join a throng of people. The air was filled with tension, but “at the same time everybody was really friendly,” says Barker. “Everybody wanted to talk with each other.”
That night the three men from Pullman and about 30 others were ferried to a church across Selma where they slept on bedrolls and took shifts keeping watch.
The next morning, they headed to back to Brown Chapel. Cole and Warren milled with the crowd and Barker took pictures, including an image of Martin Luther King Jr. and John Lewis minutes before the march began.
Then it somehow just started and thousands moved onto the highway, says Barker. “We fell in and just followed it all the way that day, about eight miles.”
“It was fraught with anxiety,” says Warren. “We were constantly harangued by the locals.”
Fifty-four miles later, under the protection of the National Guard, the marchers arrived in Montgomery in a downpour. Barker took shelter on a porch and captured the sodden, yet triumphant participants as they moved into the city.
The men returned to Pullman with stories, memories, and about 14 rolls of black and white film. Barker showed his images at the library and they all talked about what they experienced in Alabama.
It was not only a turning point for the civil rights movement, triggering the Voting Rights Act several months later, it was a signal event for the three from Pullman.
“It had a transformative effect on my life,” says Warren, now president of the National Association of Independent Colleges, and former president of Ohio Wesleyan University. He has a long history of community service and civic engagement.
Barker left his job at WSU to study anthropology and later moved to Alaska, where he now works as a photographer specializing in documentary work. His photos from the march were recently featured in The New York Times and Smithsonian online and on exhibit in galleries in North Carolina and New York.
The men are now applauded for participating and telling the story of the march from the inside, but 50 years ago, their return to Pullman was met with a mixed response.
“There were some disagreements and dispute as to whether it was proper to have gone,” says Warren. “There was a suggestion by some that we were outside instigators, that we went, we observed, and we left, and we left behind people whose lives were going to be affected from that day forward as a result of the march.”
But they didn’t see it quite that way, says Warren. “If ever there was a time to stand up and be counted, this was it.”
Gallery: Images from the Selma march by James Barker