Peter Galassi on Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom

Peter Kayafas

Lee Friedlander Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom

Remarks for Eakins Press Foundation, October 27, 2015

Peter Galassi

On May 17, 1954, the Supreme Court handed down its decision in Brown v. Board of Education. The ruling overturned the doctrine of “separate but equal,” which had underpinned racial segregation and discrimination in the United States, especially in the South. To put it mildly, however, the states that were most severely in the grip of Jim Crow were the slowest to comply with the decision. Many simply refused. To call attention to this persistent injustice and to challenge it, African-American leaders convened what they called a Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom in Washington, on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, on the third anniversary of the Brown decision, May 17, 1957. Some 25,000 people attended the event, which lasted about three hours. Many of them had come a long way, wearing their Sunday best.

One of the key organizers of the event was Bayard Rustin, who among other things had introduced Martin Luther King to Gandhi’s principles of non-violence. The young photographer Lee Friedlander visited Rustin at his office in New York to ask for press credentials for the event, and the answer was yes. That is why we have the 58 pictures in this perfect little book, and that is why Friedlander dedicated it to Rustin.

The event is history now, but it was news then, though the The New York Times failed to report it (nor did any of the magazines to which Friedlander brought his photographs use them). Friedlander made part of his living shooting record album covers, but photographing for the magazines was his main line of work, and his approach to the Prayer Pilgrimage is a textbook lesson in how to shoot a picture story: wide shots of the big crowd, looking out toward the Washington Monument; vignettes of small groups, where we can study individual people; people attending carefully to the speakers; people responding actively, raising their programs high in the air; tired people resting; and the individual speakers standing at the podium, with the others seated in the front row. Finally, attendees visiting the great statue of Lincoln. The notables are clearly registered, easy to recognize: Dr. King, Mahalia Jackson, A. Philip Randolph, Harry Belafonte, others. But the attendees get their due, too—as an impressive whole, and as individuals.

We know now what no one could have known that day—that the Prayer Pilgrimage was the first big gathering in the Capitol of what would coallesce into the Civil Rights movement. It was Dr. King’s first Washington oration, with the rhythmic repetition of the phrase “Give us the ballot” – six years before “I have a dream.”

As I mentioned, the event celebrated the third anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education. It had been 61 years since Plessy v. Ferguson, which had established “separate but equal” – and 100 years since the Dred Scott decision of 1857. Dred Scott must be the most despicable decision ever handed down by the Supreme Court. It declared – and I quote – that African-Americans were “beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race.”

I beg you to bear with me a bit longer with the dates and the arithmetic. The first number that got my attention was when I realized that Lee Friedlander was just 22 when he made these pictures. Man, I wish I could point to something remotely useful that I did when I was 22. And then I realized that Dr. King himself was only 28 years old in the spring of 1957. A very impressive young man indeed.

I’ve said that Friedlander’s pictures make an exemplary piece of reportage. And there is a hint of his audacious style to come: the cover picture with Mahalia at the podium on the left and King in the corner on the right, and between them the flag looming up, almost cutting the frame in half.

But what strikes me most about the pictures is their gentleness. And Friedlander’s considerate, warmhearted regard dovetails perfectly with the bearing of the people in the pictures – so calm and civilized, so graceful and humane. Today, 58 years have passed since the Prayer Pilgrimage, exactly the same amount of time that elapsed between Plessy and Brown. We haven’t used that time anywhere near as well as we should have, but if we have any chance to do better, we should emulate the people we see in these pictures.

© Peter Galassi, 2015

Photograph of Peter Galassi taken at the Heath at the McKittrick Hotel © Jack Llewellyn-Karski

All other photographs © Lee Friedlander