Margot Gayle is synonymous with historic preservation. A leading figure in the movement which found its voice following the tragic loss of Pennsylvania Station in 1963, Gayle played a seminal role in the creation of New York’s Landmark Preservation Law two years later. For sixteen years she penned an architecture column in the Daily News while helping to found the Victorian Society in America in 1966, and the Friends of Cast Iron Architecture in 1970. Naturally, her papers here at the New-York Historical Society reflect many of these noteworthy achievements, particularly through the medium of photography. While Gayle was an amateur, her photographs nevertheless tell important stories about New York’s built environment, most especially its architecture.
Though they are certainly a valuable resource, the collection seems an unlikely place to find pieces of Civil Rights history; however, on April 5, 1968, Gayle took a small group of photographs documenting New York’s reaction to the news of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination in Memphis the previous day. As the world reeled from the shocking news that King had been murdered, a crowd of New Yorkers gathered at the Central Park bandshell, with the New York Times reporting seven to eight thousand high school students in attendance. They listened to speeches from leading figures such as Dr. Barry Spock and Jarvis Tyner, the national chair of the W.E.B. Du Bois Clubs, which inspired a march down Broadway to City Hall.
Gayle photographed the march at 5.30 pm as it arrived at City Hall Park. It’s unclear under what circumstances this occurred but her passion for documenting New York architecture suggests Gayle may have carried her camera along with her, and simply had been in the right place, at the right time. As photographs go, they certainly don’t compare aesthetically with the most powerful images of the Civil Rights struggle, but in their own way, they are remarkable records of a critical moment in New York, and American, history.
During the march, in fact, many New Yorkers feared for the worst as elsewhere in the nation frustrations over the the terrible news had kindled rioting and other acts of violence. Fourteen people all told lost their lives. Remarkably, despite some unrest, including report broken windows and taunting of police in the course of the march, New York remained comparably calm with the Times even noting other marchers remonstrating for peace in respect of King’s principles of non-violence.
In an America where recent events have revealed the challenges still facing the nation in dealing with one of its most troubled legacies, Gayle’s photographs take on additional meaning and seem an appropriate, and timely, reminder of Martin Luther King’s achievements, particularly as we prepare to celebrate his extraordinary life next week.
Another important photographic record of the Civil Rights era is soon to be on exhibit at the N-YHS in Freedom Journey 1965: Photographs of the Selma to Montgomery March by Stephen Somerstein, opening on January 16th