This Is the Day

The March on Washington, Photographs by Leonard Freed

September 19, 2013 - December 13, 2013
Exhibition Opening: September 19, 5:30 pm
Exhibition at the GHI
Curated by Paul Farber (Haverford College)

March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom on August 28, 1963. © Leonard Freed/Magnum Photos
March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom on

At daybreak on August 28, 1963, Leonard Freed arrived in Washington, D.C. He had returned home to Brooklyn earlier that summer from living abroad in Amsterdam with his German-born wife, Brigitte, and their infant daughter, Elke Susannah. The couple had packed their darkroom equipment from their apartment into their tiny Fiat 600, sailed with the car from Rotterdam to New York, and set up a workspace in the basement of Leonard's childhood home. Freed immediately got to work photographing the civil rights movement. He made an itinerary for himself on ruled notebook paper, where he detailed dozens of potential photo shoots, including protests, street festivals, and beauty pageants. For August 27-29 he wrote, "Negro March on Washington." The day before the event, Leonard and Brigitte drove south and slept in a campsite outside of D.C. They awoke at 5:00 A.M. and drove into the city several hours ahead of the official start of the march.

While attending the March on Washington, Freed sought images in which he could bring the marchers and the layers of their social landscape into a shared frame. The day offered Freed a spectacle-not for marveling from afar or at a fixed distance, but for exploring at a ground level. Freed meandered through the assembled multitudes on the Mall. The resulting images attest to his thoughtful photographic eye, as well as active footwork throughout the day. As the crowd surged, Freed paced its myriad movements. He faced the Lincoln Memorial, the Reflecting Pool, and the Washington Monument as formidable visual anchors. He also traversed the spaces around and between these structures, playing with his angles to accentuate private moments and public displays.

In his photographs Freed portrays a woven collective of marchers: constituent groups holding banners representing their cities and states, union and clergy groups in uniformed regalia, a sweeping multiracial and multigenerational ensemble of participants dressed in their Sunday best (women in pearls, men with ties) on a sweltering weekday in August. The enormity of the event is best viewed through the sartorial details-the interplay of text and image on placards, the range of individual expression in close-up portraits. Freed sometimes snapped multiple frames of the same scene, moments in which marchers were in the midst of singing or chanting, attempting a cinematic-style capture. In each case, blurred faces or limbs that protrude into the frame further celebrate the dynamism of the event. One gets the sense that Freed was involved and also in the way.

Freed stayed on the Mall after the events of the day had passed, continuing to photograph into the evening hours. He reconnected with his wife, Brigitte, and they witnessed the last rendition of "We Shall Overcome" in which the remaining marchers linked arms and swayed. He continued to work as the crowd scattered away amid mounds of debris.

Paul M. Farber
As printed in This Is the Day: The March on Washington (J. Paul Getty Museum, 2013)

This exhibition was made possible with generous help from the Estate of Leonard Freed/Magnum Photos, Brigitte Freed, Bryan Hart, Susanne Fabricius, and in association with the GHI's conference "The Dream and its Untold Stories: The March on Washington and its Legacy" convened by Britta Waldschmidt-Nelson, Sharon Montieth, and Marcia Chatelain.

Photographs courtesy of Brigitte Freed
Copyright: Leonard Freed/ Magnum Photos
For more on Leonard Freed, please visit his website at Magnum Photos.