One evening in 1958, photographer Flip Schulke was covering a rally at a Black Baptist church in Miami where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was speaking. Schulke had spent the past few years documenting the Civil Rights Movement for publications like Life, Time, Newsweek, Jet and Ebony. After the rally, he was invited to meet with Dr. King.
They stayed up all night talking. In 1991 Schulke recalled, "It was unbelievable...this guy makes more sense than anybody I ever heard."
One of the things they spoke about was the lack of visibility that some of the non-violent protests had. Schulke explained to King that in order to document the events, photographers needed to be tipped off beforehand so they could be on the scene when the action started. Previously, King and other organizers had kept their plans a secret, so people who might interfere with the demonstrations, like local law enforcement or the Ku Klux Klan, would not find out.
After connecting with King that night, Schulke became personally invested in the cause and, at King’s invitation, began attending the secret planning meetings of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Not everyone there was pleased about Schulke’s presence: many of the group’s organizers believed a white man could not be trusted.
“I have known this man for years," King assured his followers. "I don’t care if Flip is purple with yellow polka dots, he is a human being and I know him better than I know a lot of Black people. I trust him. He stays and that’s it.”
Their friendship lasted 10 years, up until the assassination of King. During that time, Schulke created about 11,000 photographs of his dear friend and the groundbreaking movement he helped inspire. “Outside of my immediate family, his was the greatest friendship I have ever known or experienced,” Schulke noted in his 1995 book, He Had a Dream.
Schulke's archive contains an inside look at many of Dr. King’s biggest moments, such as the 1963 March on Washington and the 1965 Selma to Montgomery March. He was invited into Dr. King’s home many times, including after he won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, and captured intimate moments between him and his children. Schulke was also on the scene for other pivotal moments, such as James Meredith attending the University of Mississippi in 1962 and the funeral of Medgar Evers in 1963.
As a photographer on the front lines of many tense confrontations, Schulke endured some of the same dangers as the protestors. He was threatened by white mobs protesting against integration, tear gassed, and locked in police cars to keep him from documenting important moments in Black history.
After King’s shocking assassination, Coretta Scott King personally invited Schulke to bring his camera to the funeral. There, through the sensitive lens of a man who had just lost a great friend, he captured one of the most well-known images from the memorial. His portrait of Coretta sitting in the pews veiled in black at her husband’s funeral made the cover of Life Magazine on April 19, 1968, becoming one of its most famous covers.
Although many of Schulke’s images were published in magazines, he never tied himself to any publication. “When I was photographing Civil Rights I knew that was history,” Schulke told the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel in 1995. “I was aware enough not to sign any contracts giving up the copyright of my pictures.”
For Schulke, staying up all night locked in deep conversation with Martin Luther King, Jr. that day in 1958 changed the course of his life. He later edited and published three books of his photographs of the civil rights movement.
In all, Flip Schulke created nearly half a million photographs during his career as a photojournalist, including striking images of Muhammad Ali, Fidel Castro, and JFK; he was one of the first photographers inside the Texas Book Depository in Dallas after Kennedy's assassination. He died at the age of 77 in May 2008.