Conflict, Change and Confrontation Moneta Sleet Was Part of the Civil Rights Movement

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MONETA SLEET was understandably reluctant to comment on the situation. He was in New York City, a thousand miles away; he didn't know the background. What he had to say was this: "Many people who have fought in the trenches have come to that conclusion."

The situation is voluntary desegregation. "That conclusion" is an expression of doubt about the efficacy and wisdom of continuing desegregation programs that bus students miles away from their homes.

The subject came up here a couple of weeks ago in the offices of the editorial page of this newspaper. There, St. Louis Mayor Freeman R. Bosley Jr. revealed his reservations about that kind of a desegregation program, which is in place, ordered by the courts, in St. Louis and St. Louis County. Ever since Mayor Bosley spoke out so candidly, what had been a simmering back-burner topic came to a boil on the front of the stove.

Moneta Sleet is a photographer, and his work is currently the subject of a retrospective at the St. Louis Art Museum. I called him and asked him how he felt about talk of phasing out the landmark desegregation program. His career, after all, is to racial integration in the United States as links are to a strong chain: inexorably connected.

His exhibition at the museum has a relevance that exists outside the events of the day or even of this century, because at its core it is a deeply human show.

It is about courage and hope, about injustice, about victories and tragic defeats.

But it is also about integration and the struggle to achieve equality for people of color. It is about the insistence on equal, unfettered access to the ballot box and to all public places and services and programs.

The show is a revelation of a time when notions of separatism would have been regarded as anathema, as racism. It is a testament to the guts of those who led the movement and to those who followed and, yes, to those who were there to take pictures of it.

Sleet was born in Owensboro, Ky., in 1926, and his interest in photography goes all the way back to childhood. He began working professionally as a photographer in 1950, but it is his association with Ebony magazine, and other publications of the Johnson Publishing Co. of Chicago, for which he is celebrated.

Sleet joined the staff of Ebony in 1955. Just the year before, in the case of Brown vs. the Board of Education in Topeka, Kan., the Supreme Court ruled that separate but equal educations for black and white children were unconstitutional.

Sleet has made all sorts of pictures in his career: "Soup to nuts," he said in an interview here last month. "Everything from fashion to sports to personalities."

But the Supreme Court's stunning decision - because it was so central to the movement and because it plunged a stake in the heart of Jim Crow - had enormous impact on Sleet's work.

He did not stand behind the camera as a neutral observer. He was often at the side of the man who, with Malcolm X, was the movement's most charismatic leader.

"Although I was not an intimate by any means, I started spending time with Dr. King in 1955 and stayed with him until he passed. I went to Sweden when he got the Nobel Prize. I was part of the party."

Sleet was almost not part of the group of photographers at the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s funeral in 1968.

A press pool had been formed to cover the funeral. No blacks were in it.

"Mrs. King said there had to be a black in the pool or there'd be no pool," Sleet said. His photograph of Coretta Scott King and her daughter Bernice at the funeral won him the Pulitzer Prize in 1969.

Those men and women and events are important links of the chain, but the connections grow stronger and more complex.

In 1969, he was shooting a story for Ebony about Harry Belafonte in Harlem, where the actor was making a movie. …