When Spider Martin started at the Birmingham News as a fresh-faced photographer after winning a photo contest, it was not with the expectations of becoming a world-renowned artist or changing the country with his lens—but that is exactly what happened. The sprightly, youthful photographer took his camera into the field—at times, against the wishes of his superiors—and exposed the truth to Americans, a truth that was being hushed and veiled beneath the quietude of unsuccessful laws. As Martin Luther King, Jr., said, “Spider, we could have marched, we could have protested forever, but if it weren’t for guys like you, it would have been for nothing. The whole world saw your pictures. That’s why the Voting Rights Act was passed.”
When Martin first began at the Birmingham News, he focused his lens on Alabama football and country club functions as often as black protestors. The good ol’ boys still running Birmingham News admitted that the Civil Rights Movement was, in fact, news, and that they were therefore required to cover it, but only sandwiched between fluffy stories of family and tradition. His short stature (just over five feet), swiftness of foot, and nimbleness had earned Martin the nickname “Spider” at a young age, and it was those qualities that made him a great photographer. Martin would climb effortlessly up trees and glide unnoticed through crowds to snap the perfect shot. While Martin became known as a talented photographer before his involvement in the Civil Rights Movement, his skills were not truly appreciated on the sidelines of football games or in the humming halls of the club. It was in the pulsating crowds of protestors and under the brutal batons of law enforcement that Spider Martin’s spideriness became invaluable.
Martin’s dedication to the weightier topics surrounding the Movement essentially began with the death of Jimmie Lee Jackson. Jimmie Lee Jackson was killed by law enforcement while trying to protect his mother and grandfather after a peaceful protest in his Alabama hometown. It was in large part Jackson’s death that inspired the Selma to Montgomery Marches—and Spider Martin’s interest in the cause. With agitation in the Birmingham area increasing and the events garnering an increasingly national stage, Martin’s editors at the Birmingham News had no choice but to relent and allow Martin to devote himself to photographing the Civil Rights Movement.
After Jackson’s death, civil rights leaders from across the country gathered in Selma and took to the road in order to garner the attention of the nation. The Selma to Montgomery Marches were meant to draw attention to the racial injustices occurring throughout the South, but these marches could only accomplish their goal through the media. Hence, as Martin Luther King, Jr. said, the entire cause rested heavily in the hands of photographers like Spider Martin who exposed those injustices to the nation. Martin was there to photograph every moment of the marches, from everyday occurrences to the violent and unnecessary reactiveness of police; and from his lens to the newsstands, Martin revealed the truth to the world.
As a news photographer, Martin was usually protected by, and from, law enforcement, but following along the march, Martin became just another agitator, regardless of race or profession. His recognizable demeanor and persistent possession of a camera, in fact, turned him into a target. But Martin never let fear or violence stop him and it was his lens that captured the landmark events along the Selma to Montgomery Marches, including Bloody Sunday. Martin’s images became a beacon of truth for the entire nation. With such stunning and unavoidable images splashed across front pages, the nation could no longer ignore the problems occurring in the South, pushing citizens to pass the Voting Rights Act, helping to diminish an inequality centuries old.
Martin’s photography has appeared in publications around the world, including Life, the Saturday Evening Post, and Time. Permanent collections of his work can be found at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, the National Museum of African American History and Culture, and the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History. Martin’s photography, though undoubtedly a collection of great works of art, is much more than that. It served as the impetus for change our stagnant culture needed so much. His work encouraged the nation and the South to face the truth—and change it.
More World-Changing Photos by Spider Martin