Auburn University research team unveiled Bloody Sunday photos

Published 5:18 pm Saturday, March 4, 2023

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A research team led by Auburn University released over 100 photos of declassified FBI photos taken from Bloody Sunday in 1965.

Photographs taken by FBI photographers from the ground and in surveillance aircraft from the March 7, 1965, incident were declassified in 2015, but had never been enlarged until now because of the Freedom of Information Act request and a January trip to the National Archives in Washington, D.C., a joint Auburn-Georgia Institute of Technology research team.

The photos were displayed Saturday at Selma High School during the Foot Soldiers breakfast.

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Auburn Professors Richard BurtKeith Hébert and Junshan Liu, former Auburn researcher and current Georgia Tech Assistant Professor Danielle Willkens worked on the project a few years ago. Hebert appeared at the Selma-Dallas County Public Library and discussed with the Selma City Council.

“Being able to see these images in such detail has greatly impacted our research,” said Burt, the McWhorter Endowed Chair and head of the McWhorter School of Building Science in the College of Architecture, Design and Construction. “Not only have we been able to confirm several of our contentions about what happened that day and specifics about the landscape of the area, but the photos have helped us enhance our map with greater clarity. This breakthrough was a team effort, and we look forward to sharing these images with the public and former marchers for the first time.”

Willkens led the team’s FOIA request efforts, spending years overcoming roadblocks before successfully securing an approved permission to scan the photos.

“This is the culmination of a long and tough road, but we couldn’t be more pleased with the results,” she said. “These images are monumentally important to our research, and they have helped us paint a much clearer picture of the scene in Selma that day. I am proud to be part of this research team and know we will continue to make progress in telling this important story for months and years to come.”

Burt, Willkens and Liu—the Bob Aderholdt Endowed Associate Professor in Auburn’s College of Architecture, Design and Construction—traveled to the National Archives in the nation’s capital to perform the scans in early January. The process took days, but the detail provided by the photos shows the presence of FBI surveillance planes in the skies above Selma and bureau photographers on the ground during the confrontation.

“As far as we know, it is not public knowledge that the FBI had planes in the air that day,” said Hébert, the Draughon Associate Professor of Southern History in the College of Liberal Arts. “The contact sheets of photos were declassified years ago, but the images are just now being shared with the masses in this type of detail for the first time. These developments are proof of how important FOIA requests can be for research and for accurately telling the whole story about historical events.”