When Coretta Scott King discovered that the press pool covering the funeral of her husband included no black photographers, she let it known that if Moneta J. Sleet Jr. was not allowed into the church, she would let no photographers into the church.
Sleet’s photo of Bernice King tearfully clasping her mother inside the Ebenezer Baptist Church, where her father had been the pastor for the last eight years won a Pulitzer Prize, making Sleet the first African American journalist to win that award. He remembered that emotion-fraught moment, five days after Dr. King was shot dead:
“I looked over and saw Mrs. King consoling her daughter. I was photographing the child as she was fidgeting on her mama’s lap. Professionally, I was doing what I had been trained to do, and I was glad of that because I was very involved emotionally. If I hadn’t been there working, I would have been off crying like everybody else.”
Sleet had known the Kings for over a decade, since 1956, when he photographed the couple with another daughter on the steps of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. He even travelled with Dr. King when the latter went to Stockholm to collect his Nobel Peace Prize in 1964.
The photo was titled Deep Sorrow by Sleet and was first featured in Ebony Magazine, for which he captured Dr. King and other leading African American celebrities of his day – from Muhammad Ali to Stevie Wonder. He accompanied Vice President Richard M. Nixon’s tour of newly independent Africa nations, and took a famous photo of Kwame Nkrumah on Ghana’s independence day. Before King’s funeral brought him the Pulitzer, he had been at another forlorn occasion when he also photographed Betty Shabazz at the funeral of her slain husband, Malcolm X. His Pulitzer also transcended photography: he was the first black man to win the prize (after poet Gwendolyn Brooks in 1950 who was the first African American to win), and the first black person to win the Pulitzer for journalism.