In 1965, ‘Yankee’ photographer Martin met Alabama justice

Published 12:10 am Wednesday, June 3, 2015

SALISBURY — Why can’t we all have the kind of stories Ben Martin tells?

On a Sunday morning earlier this year, Martin was watching CBS’s “Face the Nation” when the show included footage from the Selma-to-Montgomery freedom march in 1965. He noticed a nattily dressed young photographer in a suit and tie walking next to the protesters and realized that was him, on assignment for Time magazine.

Through the marvel of modern technology, Martin was able to rewind the show, freeze the frame and take a photograph of the television screen and that particular scene.

It brought back many memories for Martin, who has retired to his hometown of Salisbury after a long, envious career as a photojournalist. He was Time’s first staff photographer and a senior photographer for more than 33 years, going to assignments all over the world.

His work also has appeared in Life, People, Sports Illustrated, Fortune, National Geographic, Travel & Leisure and other major magazines. He has taken photographs of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., President John F. Kennedy, Fidel Castrol, Nikta Khrushchev, Marilyn Monroe, Duke Ellington and Mickey Mantle, among other noteworthy subjects.

He was the author, designer and photographer of the book “Marcel Marceau: Master of Mime,” and he was a close friend of Marceau. For Time, he covered historic events such as President Kennedy’s funeral in 1963 and, as mentioned earlier, the Selma-to-Montgomery march.

Martin has had many major corporate clients over the years, and he also was still photographer on the sets of motion pictures, television series and specials. When British actor Richard Attenborough died in 2014, Martin shared a story of the time, during the filming of  the movie “Brannigan,” when his camera caught Attenborough clipping John Wayne on the jaw during a fight scene.

It was supposed to be a fake punch, but Attenborough actually slugged the Duke, and Martin snapped the exact moment of impact. It was a good picture, and led to one of Martin’s many good stories.

Martin recently grabbed some of the  photos in his personal collection from the Selma-to-Montgomery march in Alabama. He hates to mention this, given that King was killed by an assassin three years later, but a Justice Department attorney who also was in charge of security during the march told his guys they didn’t have to worry about King. Someone would have to shoot Ben Martin first, he explained, because Martin was sticking that close to the civil rights leader during the protest.

That march lasted from March 21-25, 1965. When it left Selma, about 3,200 people headed toward Montgomery on U.S. 80. They covered about 12 miles a day and slept in fields at night. By the time the group reached Montgomery, the numbers had swollen to about 25,000, and the whole protest raised awareness of the challenges confronting black voters in the South and led to the passage that summer of the Voting Rights Act.

Martin said he spent much of that march walking backwards, trying to get his shots. One day the rain seemed almost torrential, and Martin resorted to his Nikonos underwater camera. Life magazine photographer Charlie Moore snapped a picture of Martin in his rain gear that Martin still has today.

Martin came to know King and his wife, Coretta, fairly well. “They were both really wonderful people,” he says.

The way Martin remembers it, Time had “really goofed and not covered Martin Luther King the way he should have been covered” until after his “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington in 1963.

In late January of 1965, Martin was ready to travel to London for Winston Churchill’s funeral, when Time redirected him to Atlanta, where he was to join the growing coverage of King and the civil rights movement.

Times were much different in 1965, as another of Martin’s stories explains.

After the march reached Montgomery, Martin needed to send his film to Time offices in New York, and he says he couldn’t do that out of Alabama. He decided to drive the film to the airport in Atlanta so it could fly out with Air Express.

Martin was driving his rental car through rural Alabama on U.S. 80 when he was stopped by the county sheriff around Tuskegee. Martin says instincts told him he should watch his speed through Alabama, and he protested when the officer insisted he had been driving too fast.

“I don’t think I was speeding,” Martin told him.

But the sheriff  wasn’t going to be swayed, and he instructed Martin to follow him to the magistrate for processing. They drove to  a farm implement store where the magistrate held court from behind a wide desk with a center drawer.

Martin had a choice: Pay the $25 fine in cash or spend two weeks in jail. Martin says he had two $10 bills and a $5 bill. He watched as the magistrate pocketed one of the 10s and handed the other one to the sheriff.

The $5 bill went into the desk drawer.

During the course of their transaction, Martin also learned that the sheriff had a clipboard with a list of all the names and license numbers of the reporters and photographers who had covered the Selma-to-Montgomery march.

The rental car companies had furnished the local authorities all the vehicle information they needed so they would know which cars with Yankee drivers to stop. Martin’s efforts to persuade them he was a North Carolina boy by birth failed to have any effect.

“It was unbelievable,’ Martin says. “That was Alabama justice then.”

Martin left Tuskegee driving even slower, making sure he was at least 10 mph below the speed limit all the way into Georgia.

Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263 or