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Book Review: Marching to the Freedom Dream


Book Review Marching to the Freedom Dream By Dan Budnik Reviewed by Blake Andrews Social unrest. Demonstrations, marches, rallies. Racially charged homicides. If this sounds like a description of certain 2014 events, you're right. But the words also apply to the scene a half-century ago in America's Deep South during the civil rights movement. As chaotic as things got last summer in Ferguson, they did not approach the upheaval felt in Alabama in the early 1960s.

Marching to the Freedom Dream. 
By Dan Budnik. Trolley Books, 2014.
 
Marching to the Freedom Dream
Reviewed by Blake Andrews

Marching to the Freedom Dream
By Dan Budnik
Trolley Books, 2014. 300 pp., 9¼x10¾x1¼".


Social unrest. Demonstrations, marches, rallies. Racially charged homicides. If this sounds like a description of certain 2014 events, you're right. But the words also apply to the scene a half-century ago in America's Deep South during the civil rights movement. As chaotic as things got last summer in Ferguson, they did not approach the upheaval felt in Alabama in the early 1960s. The heroism and tension of those events had all the drama of a Hollywood epic.

That history has been told many times over — including in the new film Selma — and this brief review is not the place to recount it. But before diving into Marching To The Freedom Dream, Dan Budnik's recent book of photographs from that era, it's worth a moment's pause to consider where we are now, and how much progress remains unrealized. "The arc of history is long but it bends toward justice," said Dr. King. Yes, it's long. Very very long. As last year's events show, we're not there yet.

Marching to the Freedom Dream. By Dan Budnik. Trolley Books, 2014.

OK. Pause over. Let's now go back fifty years to the Spring of 1965, which in some ways was a watershed year. The Civil Rights movement was in full swing. It had been building for decades but hadn't yet gained much political power. The Civil Rights Act had passed the year before, with the Voting Rights Act to follow in the Summer of 1965. But ground-level reality hadn't yet caught up to the legislation, especially in the south. The struggle was on, and it required all hands on deck. Helping pave the way forward was a well-organized resistance movement led by many: Andrew Young, John Lewis, Bayard Rustin, James Forman, Ralph Abernathy, and countless others, all galvanized by the central figure: Martin Luther King Jr.

In the South these leaders faced a tilted playing field that restricted potential actions. Civil disobedience was one tool in the arsenal. Another was the protest march. Marching To The Freedom Dream documents three of them, the Youth March for Integrated Schools in 1958, the March on Washington For Jobs And Freedom in 1963 (capped by King's "I Have a Dream" speech), and the Selma marches of early 1965 culminating in the epic walk from Selma to Montgomery, March 21-25.

Marching to the Freedom Dream. By Dan Budnik. Trolley Books, 2014.

Budnik accompanied and documented many events of the period, including all three marches. At the time he was a relatively young photojournalist. He'd joined Magnum in 1957 at the age of 24, and the first march happened a year later. In the book's afterword, Budnik recounts his interest and involvement in the events. He was pulled by his natural empathy for the cause. The photojournalist in him was drawn to events that he realized as potentially historic. He was magnetized, but it's worth noting that his views were not universally shared. Budnik had to work hard to convince Life Magazine that the Selma March was worthy of a photo essay. The execution which followed was all his.

The photographs in the book are fairly straight photojournalism. They use images to tell the chronological story of the era in pure documentary tradition. If you're not familiar with Civil Rights history, or if your memory could use a tune up, Budnik's photos are an excellent primer. They would probably be enough on their own, but the photos come with a bonus. Most carry lengthy descriptive captions listing names, places, and helpful information to put the photos in context. The captions are written in cursive, presumably Budnik's. This is an elegant touch. It humanizes the work and also lends a subtle historic flavor.

Marching to the Freedom Dream. By Dan Budnik. Trolley Books, 2014.

Judging by his photographs Budnik was attracted mainly to the charismatic leaders of the march. To him, they were the news story. Thus the book contains many pictures of King, Abernathy, et al., and not as many of the thousands of anonymous supporters accompanying them. Following in this vein, Budnik also focused on the many celebrities and public figures that attended the marches. Marlon Brando, Harry Belafonte, Charlton Heston, James Baldwin, Burt Lancaster, Sidney Poirtier, and others make appearances in the book. I suppose if you're a photojournalist, you can't help but document such figures since their faces are made for the camera, and they probably helped sell some newspapers. But their presence here feels a little like a sideshow. Their efforts may have been integral as a tool to focus media attention, but the core of the movement was composed of the everyday folk who attended these events en masse, the general marchers and observers.

Marching to the Freedom Dream. By Dan Budnik. Trolley Books, 2014.

To be sure, Budnik photographed them also. The back cover shot of the book, a young man holding a flag, is a good example. Photographs of marchers sleeping uncovered in fields give a sense of the physical sacrifices made. And sweeping crowd shots convey the huge scope of these events. The most chilling photographs in the book show white spectators by the side of the march, some holding confederate flags or racist signs. These photographs are not only disturbing, they help put the happier moments in context. The scene was tense. The governor was a sworn enemy of their cause, and he had marshaled all efforts to corral it. The idea of marching 62 miles through his state to make a political point was not only provocative, it was potentially life-threatening. The few photos of white racists are evidence of this, but I wish Budnik had included more like them to show what the marchers were up against.

Marching to the Freedom Dream. By Dan Budnik. Trolley Books, 2014.

As a physical specimen, this book is one of the most impressive I've seen lately. It came about as the result of a Kickstarter by Budnik. The campaign raised more than asked for, and it appears that the extra funds have been put to good use. The reproductions are spot-on, conveying the material accurately and with a patina of grain for rustic effect. The color shots, presumably Kodachrome, have been left uncolor-corrected, resulting in a warm yellow saturation that says 1960s. The layout is nicely varied, the accompanying texts informative, the pacing perfect. The book even lies flat. Budnik (and Trolley Books) got the details right.—BLAKE ANDREWS

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BLAKE ANDREWS is a photographer based in Eugene, OR. He writes about photography at blakeandrews.blogspot.com.

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