“And I joined the march and marched the whole way from Selma to Montgomery walking backward mostly looking through my viewfinder” -Matt Herron

Herron and a bombed-out church

He was arrested at a protest to integrate an amusement park in 1963. He realized he had to be in the south with all of the events surrounding the early civil rights movement. Four days of driving from Philadelphia, found the Herrons, his wife Jeannine Hull Herron and their children arriving in Birmingham.

They really wanted to find a laundromat so they would have clean clothes. The one they found had a “whites only” sign in front. So instead, they joined the services at the 16th Street Baptist Church. Jeannine took their 3-year-old daughter to the bathroom in the church basement. Two weeks later, LIFE magazine called him saying the church had been bombed and that four little Black girls had been killed. He returned to take pictures for LIFE.

Herron remembers photographing the church, “I arrived at the church, and it didn’t look that bad. It was a brick building, and they had covered a hole with canvas. There were some broken windows. I took pictures of it, but they didn’t convey the violence of the act. And then I saw this car nearby, which had suffered the effects of the blast and had a blown-out front windshield. I crawled into the front seat and shot the church through the window of the car” (opening photo, top row, first photo).

“A good photojournalist is always looking for a way to intensify the image,” Herron continued saying. “Today, people will have this whole pasture here and somebody doing something over there. Those pictures never ran in the ’60s. We were always looking for ways to increase the drama, magnify, make pictures that were strong enough to make it into the magazine. This was a single frame. Compositionally, there had to be the church in the picture, and there had to be enough of the window to say ‘violence.'”

Matt Herron captured the clashes in the South

Matt Herron grew up in the Great Depression and studied under the documentary photographer Dorothea Lange. He gathered a group of eight photographers to record the confrontations between white southerners and Black protesters including the Freedom Riders who worked to gain their legal rights that had been kept from them for more than a hundred years. The photographers called themselves the Southern Documentary Project. The team covered racial events in Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia revealing the beginnings that sparked a national crisis.

Herron, who worked for newsmagazines, described himself as a “propagandist” for civil rights organizations, including the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), which gave him rare behind-the-scenes access to its members.”

On Photography: Matt Herron, 1931-2020
Matt Herron and cameras being chased.

Protective armor

Matt Herron photographed the people in the marches instead of concentrating on the marches’ leaders. Many residents, Black people who were working for white neighbors, would join the protests (opening photo, top row, middle photos).

These were dangerous times for marchers and journalists. One of the Southern Documentary Project photographers, Dave Prince was beaten severely while he was photographing a meeting at a Black church. Some of their cars were burned. Herron was chased through a field by a deputy sheriff swinging a billy club. “I would strap on my cameras like armor plate,” Herron recalls. “They gave me courage that otherwise I lacked.”

June 1965, Jackson, Mississippi

Matt Herron made one of his best-known photographs of a police officer taking an American flag from Anthony Quin, the 5-year-old son of civil rights worker Alyene Quin. Herron tells the story, “The civil-rights groups in Jackson were trying to break the back of segregation there, so their intention was to fill the jails. After they filled the jails, the police opened up the fairgrounds, and they started incarcerating people in cattle pens in the blazing sun.”

“Aylene Quin had a beauty parlor in McComb, MS. McComb was hard Klan territory. Mrs. Quin was a mother who became active in civil rights when most people were terribly frightened to do that. About a month before this picture (opening photo, bottom row, far right) was taken, the Klan threw a firebomb through her front porch. Anthony Quin was sleeping in the front room, and the ceiling came down on top of him. So, at 5, this kid is a civil-rights veteran.”

Describing the scene of his famous image, Herron says “Anthony has got this flag, the American flag, a symbol. The highway patrol shows up and starts leading people away. Mrs. Quin says to her son, ‘Anthony, don’t let that man take your flag.’ So Anthony holds onto the flag. The patrolman, Huey Krohn, probably had never met resistance from a small Black child before, and he’s trying to take the flag, Anthony’s hanging onto it, and Krohn goes temporarily berserk. So Krohn wrenches the flag out of Anthony’s hands. And the gods of chance sent me this sign in the background being held by another police officer: ‘No more police brutality.'”

The second march

Matt Herron did not go on the first march from Selma that became known as “Bloody Sunday.” He talks about his participation in the second march in this short video.

Glider pilot

Matt Herron was an adventurer who loved learning. He earned his glider pilot’s license at age 70. At 80, he learned to play the double bass. Herron was 89 when his self-launching glider crashed about 125 miles northwest of Sacramento, killing him. He is survived by his wife Jeannine.

Sources: The New York Times, Princeton Alumni Weekly