They called him "Do-Right". Will Henry Rogers, a 16-year-old African-American living in the Deep South during the mid-1960s, had a good heart but a nose for trouble. So when Bob Mants, secretary of the prominent civil-rights organisation SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee), took the teenager under his wing, he would often tell him, "Remember: do right, do right."
So recalls Dan Budnik, the photographer who captured an indelible image of young Do-Right carrying a hand-stitched US flag through rural Alabama on the historic voting-rights march from Selma to Montgomery, led by Martin Luther King in March 1965. In the photograph (see the gallery below), Do-Right and his Stars and Stripes are being saluted by a sergeant from the Alabama National Guard.
To Budnik, now 81, the youngest of the Selma-Montgomery marchers were the most impressive. "They were known as foot-soldiers," he says, "and they had taken the places of their older siblings and parents after they were arrested. That took a lot of guts. They were heroic."
As the Oscar-nominated film Selma depicts, the success of the march helped bring about the Voting Rights Act, which passed through Congress months later. Now, half a century on, Budnik has collected his photographs from the period in a new book, Marching to the Freedom Dream.
Though he was born on Long Island, New York, far from the Jim Crow South – and in an overwhelmingly white community – Budnik first witnessed virulent racial prejudice in his first week at primary school, while playing marbles with a group of fellow five-year-olds. One of the other boys, he recalls, had recently moved with his family from Alabama.
"One of the few black people in town was an old man with white hair, who walked with a cane and always had a friendly greeting for everyone. This boy jumped up in the middle of our game, threw a fistful of pebbles at the old k man and yelled the n-word. I was shocked – I could not come up with a logical explanation for his behaviour. When I went to Selma in '65, I thought about that boy."
Budnik had gone on to study painting at the Art Students League of New York in the 1950s, where he encountered a group of influential artists that included Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, Franz Kline and Jacob Lawrence, who would become the most prominent African-American painter of the 20th century.
Budnik's book is dedicated to Charles Alston, the teacher he shared with Lawrence. Alston, the first African-American to teach at the Art Students League, would often invite Budnik to dinner at his home, which was situated in the same building as boxer Joe Louis and WEB DuBois, who had co-founded the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP); they would often drop by after dinner, he says. "I would sit there as a fly on the wall as the conversation got around to what we would now call the civil-rights movement. I just sat there absorbing it."
In the early 1960s, Budnik, by then a professional photographer, chronicled some of the most crucial episodes of the era, including the March on Washington in 1963, which culminated in King's celebrated "I have a dream" speech.
Two years later, he was commissioned by Life magazine to shoot a photo essay of the Selma-Montgomery march, which he calls "King's greatest achievement". The assignment required him not only to photograph King and the marchers, but also their antagonists, including Selma sheriff Jim Clark, and Alabama's segregationist governor, George Wallace.
He first met Wallace outside the Alabama State Capitol building in Montgomery, as the governor arrived to address the women's organisation United Daughters of the Confederacy. "We walked into the chamber where the ladies were assembled with their amazing hairdos, and they were giddy. Wallace was in his element: he was a superstar to them. He opened his speech by saying, 'Ladies, we have an enemy in our midst – a fellow from the northern press!'"
One of Budnik's photographs shows a group of white men shouting insults at the marchers as they arrive in Montgomery, some doubtless using the same slur as Budnik's erstwhile marbles opponent. But another depicts marchers waving joyously to the white men lined up on the balcony of the Jefferson Davis Hotel, a segregated establishment named after the President of the Confederate States during the Civil War.
Budnik's images never made it on to the pages of Life, whose editors decided they had covered the movement enough after two other back-to-back cover stories on Selma; Marching to the Freedom Dream is the first time his pictures from the march have appeared together in print.
Today, Budnik lives in Arizona, where he has been photographing the lives of the Hopi Native American tribe since the 1970s – but he recently returned to Selma to see the town as it is today. "Visitors would be shocked," he says. "It has changed a lot. It was functional in 1965. Not thriving, but viable. But now on the main street you'll find six or eight shops in a row, empty."
He also returned to the Brown Chapel, which became the headquarters for King and his colleagues in 1965, but where he now found its Sunday service barely attended. The chapel was also where he met and photographed King himself in the run-up to the march.
"King and I talked a little bit and I then had him sit in the chair, to get his portrait," Budnik says. "He had a cross made of lightbulbs behind him. It was a damn good shot. Would've made a great magazine cover."
'Marching to the Freedom Dream' is published by Trolley Books (trolleybooks.com), priced £50
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