Record #21: Charles Martin’s Photographs of the Pittsburgh Peace March
Miriam Meislik, the ASC’s media curator, enjoyed many conversations with Charles R. “Chuck” Martin throughout 2012 as he considered donating his life’s work to the archives. A photographer with 66 years of experience, Martin had accumulated more than 143,000 images, and Miriam was eager to hear the gregarious Martin share his experience taking many of them.
Three things became readily apparent. His love for his wife Sally and the inspiration she provided throughout his career; his love for photography and its potential to capture people, situations, and events; and his humanistic approach to life which influenced his personal photography. It was all of these that brought about his emotional response when he talked about the photographs he took on April 7, 1968, the National Day of Mourning declared in the aftermath of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. three days prior. It was obvious what it meant for him to be there to capture this event.
As Chuck and Sally drove through Pittsburgh with their three children on that Sunday, they noticed that there seemed to be a lot of activity Downtown. He parked on the North Side, where his family remained, while he walked across a bridge and up into the Hill District. He was unaware at the time that a peace march had been planned in response to President Lyndon Johnson’s call for a National Day of Mourning. The assassination of Dr. King resulted in an emotional response that could not have been predicted. Protests in major cities broke out across the country and quickly erupted into violence with mass looting and rioting. In Pittsburgh, the Homewood-Brushton, Hazelwood, and Hill District neighborhoods were particularly effected by riots on April 5th.
The Pittsburgh Peace March was organized by local civil rights leaders in response to the April 5th riots; in attendance were well-known activists including Nate Smith, Byrd Brown, and Alma Speed Fox. People of varied backgrounds and all walks of life from throughout the city joined the march in solidarity to remind people of Dr. King’s non-violent teachings. Martin said his goal with all of his work was to always try to capture what the French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson termed “the decisive moment.” His eye and talent for capturing the image at the right time was put to the test on that Sunday afternoon as marchers gathered near Centre Avenue and Pride Street, with the National Guard keeping a watchful eye on the proceedings. Eventually the march would snake through downtown, culminating with speeches at the Federal Building on Liberty Avenue.
Selections from Martin’s photos.
Other prominent local photographers were also recording the events of that Sunday.
Charles “Teenie” Harris is seen above carrying his Speed Graphic through the crowd in an image captured by Forrest “Bud” Harris, and, below, Bud himself is captured in Chuck’s image as he passed by:
Each of these photographers have given us powerful views of this event that make us feel as though they have seized the moment. While Martin died on July 8, 2013, Teenie Harris died on March 20, 1998, and Bud Harris died June 15, 2009, we have their images to remind us of this time.
These photos showcase more than just the talents of these photographers, however; they capture the emotional volatility of the 1960s in the highs and lows of the Civil Rights Movement. Pittsburgh, like many Northern industrial cities, had seen its first large influx of African-American residents as a result of the Great Migration of the early 20th century, which exacerbated racial tension. Though Pittsburgh is not often thought of as a major participant in the Civil Rights Movement, local individuals and societies fought for the equality desperately pursued in areas all over the country. The Pittsburgh Branch of the NAACP and the Urban League of Pittsburgh were both leaders in pressing for equal opportunities in education, housing, and employment; other local organizations included the Catholic Interracial Council of Pittsburgh, the East End Education Committee, and the Pittsburgh School Desegregation Project. Individuals such as Homer S. Brown, Charles Owen Rice, and, more contemporarily, Tim Stevens, have all spearheaded efforts for civil rights. Pittsburgh’s K. Leroy Irvis was elected the first African-American Speaker of a State House since the time of Reconstruction, representing the Hill District for 15 straight terms; many of the pieces of legislation he introduced were aimed at civil rights, equal housing and education. Documenting it all was the Pittsburgh Courier, a widely circulated African-American run newspaper. Pittsburgh is blessed with a rich history of African American innovators and Civil Rights leaders; the photos taken by Chuck Martin truly do help to capture “the decisive moment” of one of the single most emotional days of the entire struggle. In addition to the images in this post, more photographs from this event can be seen in Chuck Martin’s and Bud Harris’ collections held by the University of Pittsburgh and in the Teenie Harris collection held by the Carnegie Museum of Art.
- Miriam Meislik