Deep Sorrow, 1968


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.


The Murder of Emmett Till


The murder of a 14-year old black boy Emmett Till  in Money, Mississippi in August 1955 sparked the Civil Rights movement, but the crime won’t sound clarion calls for a nation to wake up to if not for the above photo. The gruesome photographs of Till’s mutilated corpse circulated around the country, notably appearing in Jet magazine, which targeted African American crowd. The photo drew intense public reaction. Till, while visiting Mississippi from Chicago, whistled* at a married white woman and incurred the wrath of local white residents.

In the middle of the night, the door to his grandfather’s house was thrown open, and Emmett was taken by the mob of at least six white men, forced into a truck and driven away, never again to be seen alive. Till’s body was found swollen and disfigured in the Tallahatchie river three days after his abduction and only identified by his ring. It was sent back to Chicago, where his mother insisted on leaving the casket open for the funeral and on having people take photographs because she wanted people to see how badly Till’s body had been disfigured—she has famously been quoted as saying, “I wanted the world to see what they did to my baby.” Up to 50,000 people viewed the body.

On the day he was buried, two men — the husband of the woman who had been whistled at and his half brother — were indicted of his murder, but the 12-member all-white male jury (some of whom actually participated in Till’s torture and execution) took only an hour to return ‘not guilty’ verdict. The verdict would have been quicker, remarked the grinning foreman, if the jury hadn’t taken a break for a soft drink on the way to the deliberation room. To add insult to injury, knowing that they would not be retrial, the two accused men sold their stories to LOOK magazine and happily admitted to everything.

Elsewhere in Mississippi too, things weren’t going terribly well for blacks either. Just before Till was murdered, two activists Rev. George Lee and Lamar Smith were shot dead for trying to exercise their rights to vote, and in a shocking testimony to lack of law and order, no one came forward to testify although both murders were committed in broad daylight. The next year, Clyde Kennard, a former army sergeant, tried to enrolled at Mississippi South College in Hatiesburg in 1956. He was sent away, but came back to ask again. For this ‘audacity’, university officials — not students, or mere citizens, but university officials —  planted stolen liquor and a bag of stolen chicken feed in his car and had him arrested. Kennard died halfway into his seven year sentence. But times were slowly a-changing: Brown vs. Board of Education was decided in 1954, and three months after the Till murder took place, Rosa Parks would refuse to move to the back of a bus in Montgomery, Alabama. Sit-ins and marches would follow, and soon the civil rights movement itself would be in fullswing.

(Details were evidently murky: some said he asked Carolyn Bryant out on a date; some said he suggested to her that he had already been with white girls. Some said he showed her a photo of his white girlfriends. Others insist that the photo was that of Hedy Lamarr which came with his wallet.)

Rosa Parks in Montgomery Bus

“People always say that I didn’t give up my seat because I was tired, but that isn’t true. I was not tired physically, or no more tired than I usually was at the end of a working day. I was not old, although some people have an image of me as being old then. I was forty-two. No, the only tired I was, was tired of giving in…. When I declined to give up my seat, it was not that day or bus in particular. I just wanted to be free, like everybody else.” — Rosa Parks.

Yet, it was an unintentional protest. Around 6 p.m. on Thursday, December 1, 1955, in downtown Montgomery, Rosa Parks paid her fare and sat in an empty seat reserved for blacks. As white-only seats in the bus filled up, the bus driver demanded that she gave her seat up. When Parks refused to give up her seat, a police officer arrested her. Two hours after her arrest, the long-time NAACP activist was released on $100 bail. By midnight, a plan had been hatched for a citywide bus boycott, to which a young Baptist minister named Martin Luther King Jr. would later be elected to direct. The boycott lasted 381 days, until the Supreme Court ruled that segregation on buses was illegal. Although Parks was not the first black bus rider in Montgomery to refuse to give up her seat, but Parks’ case became the one the legal challenge was based upon, and it was the case’s success, rather than Parks herself, that ignited the modern civil rights movement.

On Dec. 21, 1956 — the day after the supreme court decision — United Press International staged a photo-op of Mrs. Parks sitting in front of a white man on a different bus. Similar photo opportunities were arranged for Martin Luther King Jr. and black leaders riding the newly integrated Cleveland Avenue bus, but the journalists and members of the civil rights community wanted an image that would dramatize what had occurred and asked reluctant Mrs. Parks to pose for the picture. Ironically, the picture UPI intended as showing the bus integration came to symbolize Park’s protest, which happened over a year before. (Other famous photos of Parks, a mug shot and a picture of her being fingerprinted, don’t date to Dec. 1, 1955, either. They were taken on Feb. 22, 1956, after about 100 black Montgomery residents were indicted on charges that they violated a local antiboycott statute.)

A UPI journalist Nicholas Chriss posed as the hard-eyed white man behind Parks.