Lesson Plans: Grades 6-8

Picturing Freedom: Selma-to-Montgomery March, 1965

Created December 20, 2010


The Lesson


Picturing Freedom: Selma-to-Montgomery March, 1965

James Karales (1930-2002), Selma-to-Montgomery March for Voting Rights in 1965,

Credit: Photo James Karales. © Estate of James Karales.

Photography is a small voice, at the best sometimes-just sometimes-one photograph or a group of them can lure our senses into awareness…

—W. Eugene Smith, photojournalist and Karales's mentor

Why did thousands march over 50 miles through cold, Alabama rain in 1965? In this lesson, students learn about the Selma-to-Montgomery voting rights march. After analyzing photojournalist James Karales's iconic photograph of the march, reading background material on it, and considering what the marchers might have thought and felt, students write and illustrate a postcard describing this civil rights event from a marcher's viewpoint.

Guiding Questions

How does James Karales's photograph indicate the spirit and significance of the 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery, Alabama, voting rights march?

Learning Objectives

At the end of this lesson, students will be able to

  • Explain the role of photojournalists and media in the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965
  • Describe how this photograph captures the spirit of the 1960's civil rights movement


James Karales and his photograph

For photographer James Karales, being "a photojournalist in the 60's was heaven, utopia." As a Look Magazine photographer, he covered the Vietnam War and civil rights movement. His photograph, Selma-to-Montgomery March for Voting Rights in March, 1965, was part of Look's award-winning photo essay, "Turning Point for the Church," which documented the role of churches in the civil rights movement. This photograph appeared on book covers and in the TV documentary series, Eyes On the Prize. Art critics called it a pictorial anthem with "the weight of history and the grace of art." As African Americans struggled for equal rights, they often included references to their religion and the spiritual music of the Deep South. (See Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech.) This Karales photograph of marchers reminded historian Taylor Branch of the Israelites marching out of the Red Sea as they fled Egyptian slavery.

James Karales was born in 1930 to Greek immigrants in Canton, Ohio. After earning a B.F.A. from Ohio University, he interned with noted photographer W. Eugene Smith. Under Smith's tutelage, Karales learned to tell stories in powerful documentary photographs. Photographs such as his, as well as television news reports, brought the nation face to face with contemporary violence and racism.

In the Selma-to-Montgomery photograph, Karales knew how to angle his camera in order to emphasize the importance of the event. The approaching line of dark figures, seen from below, is dramatically silhouetted against a light background. Contrasting dark clouds that move in from the opposite direction loom above them and suggest a possible threat. Not only did Karales snap his camera's shutter at just the right moment to catch the fleeting light, but he also manipulated the viewpoint so that only the marchers, flags, clouds, and a few weeds are visible. Nearby buildings, fences, traffic, cameramen, and national guardsmen aren't visible to the viewer and thus don't compete with the heroic isolation of his main subject.

The Civil Rights Era For a concise overview of the civil rights movement (when and where it started, what the key issues and who the leaders were) consult The Modern Civil Rights Movenment in Alabama, a section of the Encyclopedia Alabama.

Selma to Montgomery March The first attempt to march from Selma to Montgomery took place on March 7, 1965. The purpose was to peacefully progress from Selma to the capital in order to gain national awareness for voting rights. The march began quietly, but several blocks from where they started, the 600 marchers were met with violence by state and local police on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. They were beat, trampled, and bloodied in an event that would become known as "Bloody Sunday."

After reorganization and careful negotiations, the march started again on March 21, 1965, and reached Montgomery successfully five days later. This time marchers were prepared, and protected by the U.S. Army and Alabama National Guard. These armed guards lined parts of the road to protect the marchers. The national media covered this soon-to-be historic event documenting it-particularly through photographs. When they left Selma, the marchers numbered approximately 3,200, but on their arrival in the capital the total was nearly 25,000.

The television coverage of the violence shocked the nation. It provoked an outpouring of support for the voting rights movement from white religious and labor leaders as well as ordinary citizens.  President Lyndon Johnson and key members of Congress who had been dubious about the need for a bill now committed themselves to its passage. Johnson delivered one of the most important speeches on his presidency, “We Shall Overcome”, in support of the act on March 15. The bill that Dr. King, Lewis, and so many other civil rights leaders had sought was signed into law August 6, 1965 by President Johnson

See more information about 19b James Karales, Selma-to-Montgomery March for Voting Rights in 1965 in the Picturing America Educators Resource Book.

Preparation Instructions

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. Karales Photo: Look and Think

Before discussing James Karales's Selma-to-Montgomery March for Voting Rights in 1965 have students study it individually and write their answers on The National Archives Photo Analysis Worksheet. Use the worksheet questions and the students' answers as a framework for a class discussion about the photograph. Encourage them to notice details that will help them understand the event, the marchers, and why this photograph is so powerful.

Step 1. Observation

People. About fifty people are visible in this photograph. (Actually, thousands joined the march with about 25,000 at its finale at the Alabama State Capitol.) Figures closest to the camera are larger with more detail than the progressively smaller ones fading into the background.

Note their clothing and body positions.

From left to right:

Front three marchers wear white shirts and dark pants. One of these short-haired, dark men wears a tie. The long-haired girl wears white socks, tennis shoes, and holds a dark object (maybe an umbrella or a jacket).

Dark man nearest the camera wears a dark-brimmed hat, white shirt, and dark coat and pants. His body slants backwards.

White man (5th figure from front) has little hair, glasses, a high white collar, and dark coat.

Nearby white woman with short hair, holds her hand to her dark glasses; she wears a white shirt and swinging skirt.

Arm of man holds a jacket.

Dark woman in a dark sweater, white blouse, and dark skirt faces the camera.

Group of white and black men follow. Some wear hats, ties, and jackets.

Black woman in white t-shirt turns away from the camera.

Young white man with short hair wearing a white dress shirt with rolled-up sleeves bends slightly forward and moves his hands.

From this point back the figures become progressively less distinct.

Objects—Students may note:

Two American flags (carried by marchers)

Distant signs

Weeds are close to the viewer and help create a sense of scale.

The ground dips down near the edges of the scene.

People carry umbrellas and coats or jackets.


The group walks from right to left. Some face the camera; others turn away from it. Their arms and legs swing forward. The first three figures' legs stretch out in unison. Note the slant of the first four bodies. They may be walking downhill.

Step 2. Inference

Some inferences that students might make are:

  • Dark clouds suggest that a storm has passed or is threatening. Clouds could symbolize past or future troubles. Because the marchers are not overshadowed however, maybe a better day is coming.
  • The American flags suggest that these are patriotic American citizens. They may be thinking about their American values and democratic right to vote.
  • Both blacks and whites are in this long line. They are working together for a common cause.
  • Determined front marchers are walking briskly in unison. Maybe they are singing to keep in step.
  • The woman wearing pants, tennis shoes, and carrying an umbrella or jacket in the front group seems prepared literally and figuratively for the weather and long walk, as well as for whatever difficulties come her way.
  • With flags and well-dressed marchers, this seems like a noble cause that has been well planned. Organizers knew the march would be photographed by news media and wanted participants to look their best as they marched for a cause they felt passionately about.
Step 3. Questions

A. What questions does this photograph raise in your mind?
Students might wonder:

  • Why are these people walking together on this country road?
  • What had happened to them that caused them to make this journey?
  • Where are they going? How far did they walk? Did they get wet?
  • What do they hope to accomplish by walking together?
  • What happened once they reached their destination?
  • Did they accomplish their goal? How did their lives change?
  • Is there still racism in America?
  • Where was the photographer who took this picture? Why was he there?
  • Why did photographs and videos of events like this change America?

Where can you find answers to these questions?

History books, 1965 newspapers and magazines, videos of the events, diaries, and interviews of the participants are possible sources of information about this voting rights march. Much of this material is on the Internet. (See the sources at the end of this lesson.)

After discussing this photograph, lead students in considering how news photographs and videos inform and shape their attitudes towards violence/non violence and injustice/justice.

Activity 2. Read information about the Selma-to-Montgomery March.

Have students read the information sheet about the Selma-to-Montgomery March and complete the questions and map activity worksheet.

Activity 3. Complete worksheet about what marchers sensed.

Have students think critically about what it was like to be in that march. After students have looked at, investigated, and interacted with the photograph, ask them to complete the senses worksheet. The teacher might play music from the civil rights movement while students are completing their worksheet.


Each students will create a postcard that a participant in the march might send to someone with an illustration on one side and a message on the other.

  • Each students should imagine that he or she is one of the marchers in the photograph. The postcard will be written in first person.
  • Students will use their written responses from Activity 3 to help them create their postcards. Finished postcards should be 4"x6".
  • On the backs of the cards, students will write a concise message about being on the march. They will include at least one word from each of the questions asked in the Activity 3 worksheet. Their messages must also incorporate knowledge from the reading in Activity 2 and from visual study of Karales's photograph. Students should underline words used from Activity 3 on their postcards.
  • On the front, students will create images for their postcards. Their images may be hand drawn, cut from magazines or newspapers, or printed from the Internet. The images, however, must be related to the event at hand, not just any civil rights activity or civil rights in general.
  • It cost 4¢ to mail a postcard in the US in 1965—students may make historically accurate stamps to add to their complete postcard! (See Arago—People, Postage & The Post—Philately 1960-1969)
  • Assess students' postcards with the Rubric.

Extending The Lesson

  • Follow the 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery Voting Rights March trail on satellite maps. In Google maps, get directions from 410 Martin Luther King St., Selma, Alabama, to Edmund Pettus Bridge, Selma, Alabama: and from there to the Alabama State Capitol in Montgomery, Alabama. Street views for portions of the route are available. Although the roads are larger now, encourage students to describe what marchers might have seen along the route.
  • Students may analyze other photographs of the voting rights march from the Encyclopedia Alabama. They may note the prevalence of cameras, video equipment, and armed law enforcement officers.

  • Have students create a photo documentary of a school or community event. Remind them that their pictures should tell the story of the event as well as show the mood of the people. Students may view photo essays by professional photojournalists in news magazines, readily available on the Internet.


  • Have students interview family, neighbors, teachers, etc. about a historic event/march/rally they participated in (March on Washington, Selma to Montgomery, a war protest, etc.). If possible, have students include a photograph of the event. Students should write their interviews and then post their interviews and photos on a designated bulletin board or website.

Selected EDSITEment Websites

American Experience

Encyclopedia Alabama

Gilder-Lehrman Institute of American History

Songs of the Civil Rights Movement

Picturing America

Picturing America Educators Resource Book.

Voices of Democracy

Lyndon B. Johnson, "We Shall Overcome" March 15, 1965

The Basics

Time Required

3-4 class periods

Subject Areas
  • History and Social Studies > People > African American
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > Civil Rights
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > U.S. Constitution
  • Critical analysis
  • Discussion
  • Historical analysis
  • Visual analysis

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