USC historian Natalia Molina is reframing how we think about race in America.
By the summer of 1965, only a few months after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., Natalia Molina was a college sophomore in California. Then, and for the next six years, she was the chief photographer for the University of Southern California’s then-popular USC Marching Band. Her work at the university’s Band Hall would not have been possible without two federal contracts: one for her to be part of the photo department’s marching band, the other for her to photograph their athletic events. As a girl growing up in communist Yugoslavia, however, she had never previously photographed a live performance.
After graduation, Molina took a job as a reporter with the Los Angeles Times. She also began taking classes at USC, to pursue a master of fine arts in photography. In the class she took, she was introduced to the great African-American photographer, Alfred Eisenstaedt. He had recently been honored by the Museum of Modern Art for his pioneering, innovative photography collection. She immediately asked to be assigned to the museum to work with him on the project.
When she finally visited, however, she had an encounter with someone whose life and work were both steeped in racial conflict. “To my amazement,” she later recalled, “I found myself standing in the middle of the museum with this white man, who had once been a U.S. marshal. We had a great conversation, and he told me much about the history of the march and how a black man had been one of the organizers. He talked, for example, about how James Meredith had been denied reentry into the University of Mississippi. He told me about the time that Dr. King stopped the school on the march with a rifle. He asked if he had been on the march more than once. ‘No,�