Martin Luther King Jr’s funeral, a photographer and a photo that still makes us cry The story behind Moneta Sleet’s Pulitzer Prize winning photo

The proverb says that April showers bring May flowers. T.S. Eliot preferred the darker side, proclaiming April the “cruelest month.” For journalists, April showers can also mean Pulitzer Prizes.

This April also marks 50 years since the murder of Martin Luther King Jr. on April 4, 1968, and thus 50 years since the publication of a famous photograph showing the grieving widow of the fallen martyr. Coretta Scott King mourns at the funeral of her husband, her little daughter Bernice resting her head upon her mother’s lap.

Moneta Sleet, Jr.

Getty Images

That iconic black-and-white image of the veiled widow was taken by a man named Moneta Sleet Jr. (For the record, he used a Nikon camera with a 35 mm lens, with Kodak Tri-x film.) The following year, 1969, Sleet received news that he had been awarded a Pulitzer Prize. At that moment, Sleet became the first black man to win a Pulitzer and the first African-American journalist to win one as an individual rather than as part of a journalism team.

(The poet Gwendolyn Brooks won the prize for literature in 1950.)

It was in 1947, remember, that Jackie Robinson (whom Sleet also photographed) broke the color line in baseball. It took another 22 years before a black man crossed that line in the Pulitzer competition.

From 1955 until his death in 1996, Sleet worked for the Johnson Publishing Co. His images, especially in Jet and Ebony magazines, documented every step of the civil rights movement. Beyond that, he captured the work and achievements of black celebrities, performers and politicians in every corner of the country — but also in Africa and around the globe.

Sleet’s eyes were not on a Pulitzer Prize but on a higher calling: to document the life and times of a marginalized and persecuted people in all aspects of their lives, through triumphs, troubles and tragedies.

The historical collection Capture the Moment: The Pulitzer Prize Photographs describes Sleet’s most famous image and how it came to be captured on April 9, 1968:

“It has been just five days since a sniper’s bullet killed the civil rights leader. Coretta Scott King has discovered that the pool of journalists covering her husband’s funeral does not include a black photographer. She sends word: If Moneta Sleet is not allowed into the church, there will be no photographers.”

Mrs. Martin Luther King, Jr., comforts her youngest daughter Bernice, 5, during services in the Ebenezer Baptist Church, 4/9.

In a Johnson Publishing collection of Sleet’s work titled Special Moments in African-American History, 1955-1996: The Photographs of Moneta Sleet, Jr., Ebony Magazine’s Pulitzer Prize Winner, Sleet offers his own, more modest version of events:

“There was complete pandemonium. Nothing was yet organized because the people from SCLC [Southern Christian Leadership Conference] were still in a state of shock. We had the world press descending upon Atlanta, plus the FBI, who were investigating the assassination.

“We were trying to get an arrangement to shoot in the church. They were going to pool it. Normally, the pool meant news services: Life, Time and Newsweek. When the pool was selected, there were no black photographers from the black media on it. Lerone Bennett and I got in touch with Mrs. King through Andy Young. She said if somebody from Johnson Publishing is not on the pool, there will be no pool.

“We … made arrangements with AP that they would process the black and white film immediately after the service and put it on the wire. Later, I found out which shot they sent out. … The day of the funeral, Bob Johnson, the executive editor of Jet, had gotten to the church and he beckoned for me and said, ‘There’s a spot right here.’ It was a wonderful spot.

“What I noticed … this was prior to the funeral — was the little girl fidgeting there on her mother’s lap. I could relate to that, being a father and having a child close to the same age. Mrs. King was sitting there, stoic and stately, but it was specifically the child who I was thinking about at the time.”

In a profession whose practitioners are expected to bring a certain detachment to their work, Sleet saw no reason to apologize for his commitment to the cause of racial equality or for his emotional involvement with those he photographed.

“I wasn’t there as an objective reporter,” he once said. “I had something to say and was trying to show one side of it. We didn’t have any problems finding the other side.” The side of racism and intolerance.

At the same time, his professional standards gave him the foundation to create his best work. He said of covering the King funeral: “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.”

In the Johnson collection of his work, there is a beautiful photo of Sleet and his family. They are beaming. His daughter sits on the floor holding telegrams of congratulations. Sleet is holding his Pulitzer Prize. This is from the May 22, 1969, edition of Jet magazine:

“You must be joking” were the words Moneta Sleet uttered when informed that he had won the 1969 Pulitzer Prize in news feature photography. “I knew that it was a good photograph, but I knew there were lots of good photographs in the running. So, there’s no need of my lying, I was quite happy to win the award. And my wife, Juanita, and the kids, Michael, Gregory and Lisa, were thrilled.”

At the time, magazine features were not eligible for Pulitzer Prizes. Sleet’s image became eligible because of its distribution by The Associated Press.

The Rev. Kenny Irby, a veteran photojournalism leader and a former faculty member at the Poynter Institute, knew Sleet and looked up to him as a role model and mentor. Via email, he responded to questions about Sleet and his legacy:

As an African-American, a photojournalist, a pastor, and a father, what do you see when you look at the famous photo taken by Moneta Sleet?

I see great pain and promise in this photograph. Moneta gave me a copy in 1996 after the Olympic Games, which was his last major assignment. For me, it’s the obvious pain for the murdered martyr for justice and peace. I see the promise in his daughter Bernice, who would pick up the baton of her father’s work. And I see the promise affirmed by Moneta’s Pulitzer Prize, an honor which paved a path for me and generations of other photojournalists.

This is a black-and-white photograph. What do you see technically that interests you?

The elegance of the black-and-white composition has long transfixed me. I love the stark white dress of Bernice, juxtaposed against the black dress and glove. Then there are shimmering shades of gray that flow from the veil throughout the photograph. Yet, the sadness of the eyes in the photograph says all that needs to be said.

Access is so important to any successful photojournalist. What did it take for a black photographer in the 1960s to get access to important social and political events?

That’s a really great question. It took courage and connections. It was actually Coretta who took the bold stand and insisted that Moneta would be the pool photographer while there was one other photographer inside. Flip Schulke, who was white, also had a relationship with Dr. King.

For Jet and Ebony magazines, Sleet covered the civil rights movement, issues related to Africa, the black social and celebrity scene. How would you summarize his contribution to journalism?

Simply put, he was one of the trailblazers — a tremendously kind human being, a great journalist and nurturing mentor to many.

Thousands attend MLK50 commemoration in Memphis but for different reasons Civil rights icons, union workers, students and activists participate in several historic events

MEMPHIS, Tennessee — Audriana Thomas made a trip to Memphis and found herself in the midst of making history. The Florida A&M University student, one of dozens selected as a delegate for the I AM 2018 Mountaintop Conference honoring the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. and other great leaders, was front and center for the MLK50 march on behalf of union workers.

“AFSCME came to my school and did a seminar on different injustices that are going on in society, specifically with workers’ unions, and they actually recruited us,” Thomas said. “They have actually been giving us leadership training and helping equip us for our future.”

Thomas, other visitors, civil rights icons, pastors, and others numbering more than 7,000 made their way to downtown Memphis to commemorate the death of King in the city where he was assassinated on April 4, 1968, on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel.

A crowd gathered in the morning on the north end of Beale Street in Memphis to recreate the legendary “I AM A MAN” photo. Several groups of visitors headed to the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel. Others piled onto another corner at Fourth and Beale streets, anticipating a march slated for noon. The location was filled with music by performers Common, Goapele and Sheila E., as well as speakers who took to the stage throughout the morning. Hundreds more continued to arrive for the kickoff of the nearly two-hour MLK50 march.

Locked arm in arm, Martin Luther King III, his wife, Arndrea, and daughter Yolanda Renee were joined by Rev. Al Sharpton, Rev. James Lawson, AFSCME president Lee Saunders, Bishop Charles Blake, actors Chris Tucker and Glynn Turman, and Sen. Bernie Sanders. Hundreds made their way through the stop-and-go path in the chilly spring weather.

While many were in Memphis to commemorate King’s death and honor his fight for justice, some were continuing his fight for better wages and safer working conditions.

Francis Nichols III of Washington, D.C., represented the American Federation of Government Employees as an organizer for AFGE Y.O.U.N.G. (Young Organizing Unionists for the Next Generation).

“We make sure there is a future for our youth today,” Nichols said. “We make sure there is stability and fair work wages and safe work conditions for all. That’s what we stand for at AFGE. … This is something monumental, and everyone got to witness that. He [King] died for us, and we will march for him.”

Meanwhile, Memphian Michael Clark said he understood local concerns in the community. As a Memphis sanitation department employee for 36 years, he said, this march is dear to his heart.

“I will be here every year until I leave here. And I will teach my kids the same thing.”

After the march, a red and white wreath was dropped from the balcony at 6:01 p.m., followed by a moment of silence and a ringing of the 120-year-old, 1,700-pound church bell from Clayborn Temple in Memphis. Singer Al Green hit the stage for a surprise performance in front of thousands.

Wednesday’s events wrapped up with an Evening of Storytelling at the city’s Crosstown Concourse, with panels hosted by Michael Eric Dyson, Tamron Hall and April Ryan featuring the local organizer and founder of the Take ‘Em Down 901 campaign, Tami Sawyer; national activist Bree Newsome; Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr.; and others.

While many will leave Memphis, the city’s struggle with poverty, racism and classism persists. These issues are chronicled by columnist Wendi C. Thomas, who founded MLK50: Justice Through Journalism. The digital website is a yearlong reporting project produced by a team of writers, editors and photographers. The coverage focuses on issues that were close to King’s heart, such as jobs and wages, power and wealth, and black business.

MLK50.com reported on research that concluded that 50 years after King’s fight for city sanitation workers, “white workers hold a sizable majority of the higher-status and better-paying jobs among large, private employers in the Memphis metro area, though they represent only 43 percent of the overall workforce.” The data also shows “88 percent of executives and senior level managers in the Memphis area were white. In the lowest-paying job categories, nearly 76 percent of laborers and 73 percent of service workers were black” and “the median income for 2016 was $35,664 for black households and $69,860 for white households.”

Other activists in Memphis were part of the Fight for $15 campaign, which advocates for a higher minimum wage. The state minimum wage rate for Tennessee in 2017 and 2018 is $7.25 per hour, the current federal minimum wage rate. According to the Fight for $15 website, the campaign organizers and participants “won $62 billion in raises for 22 million people across the country by standing up and going on strike for $15/hr and union rights.”

Bernard Lafayette Jr. was with King in Memphis just hours before he was killed The two men met at the Lorraine Motel to discuss the start of the Poor People’s Campaign

It was about 9 in the morning on April 4, 1968. Bernard Lafayette Jr. had gotten the final details of his mission from Martin Luther King Jr.

Later on that fateful day in Memphis, Tennessee, Lafayette would pack his luggage at the Lorraine Motel and head to the airport for a flight to Washington, D.C., the site of his assignment.

Eight years earlier, Lafayette had been a classmate of civil rights pioneer John Lewis at the American Baptist Theological Seminary, a predominantly black institution in Nashville, Tennessee. In 1968, he was the national program administrator for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), the guiding light of the civil rights movement in the 1960s.

The charismatic and magnetic King was not only the president of the SCLC but also its spiritual force and moral conscience. King and Lafayette met alone in Room 306 that morning to discuss media relations for the Poor People’s Campaign, a monumental undertaking designed to bring national attention to U.S. poverty as the SCLC pivoted toward economic rights. That’s why King and the SCLC were in Memphis in the first place: to help the city’s sanitation workers, mostly black men, address their concerns regarding low pay and dangerous working conditions.

Lafayette, the national coordinator for the Poor People’s Campaign, was to conduct a news conference on April 5 at campaign headquarters in Washington. And the media-savvy King wanted the message to be clear.

“He wanted to make sure I mentioned the inclusiveness of the Poor People’s Campaign,” Lafayette told The Undefeated. “He wanted everyone to know that this was about more than black people. It also was about helping poor whites, Native Americans and Mexican-Americans.”

In this Jan. 16, 1968, file photo, Martin Luther King (left), accompanied by Rev. Bernard Lafayette, talks about a planned march on Washington, D.C., during a news conference in Atlanta.

AP Photo/Charles Kelly

At the end of the conversation, King told Lafayette, “We are going to institutionalize and internationalize nonviolence.”

By sunset, those words proved eerily ironic.

When Lafayette arrived in Washington, Walter Fauntroy, the D.C. city councilman and Washington point person for the SCLC, wasn’t there to pick him up at the airport. That’s when Lafayette had an inkling that something was awry.

He called the headquarters of the Poor People’s Campaign, at 14th and U streets in Northwest Washington. That’s when Lafayette found out King had been shot on the motel balcony in Memphis.

Later, Lafayette called The Associated Press and United Press International wire services. Two pay telephones at once — with the AP in his left ear and the UPI in his right.

“Then, the UPI reporter started crying on the phone,” Lafayette said.

That’s when he first learned King had died. Moments later, Lafayette hopped in a cab to 14th and U.

There, he called the Lorraine Motel. Andrew Young, the executive vice president of the SCLC, told Lafayette not to return to Memphis. Fly to the SCLC headquarters in Atlanta instead, he said.

Lafayette then canceled the D.C. news conference scheduled for the next day.

a funeral for which to prepare

In 1968, Lafayette, at 28 years old, was a veteran of the civil rights movement. In 1960, he had participated in the sit-ins to desegregate lunch counters in Nashville, along with Lewis, Diane Nash and James Bevel. In 1961, Lafayette was one of the original Freedom Riders, along with Lewis, Jim Zwerg and William Barbee, as they tried to desegregate public interstate travel in the South amid physical attacks from angry white mobs.

Lafayette also was one of The Children, a book written by Pulitzer Prize-winning author David Halberstam 20 years ago that focused on eight college students, all of whom attended historically black colleges or universities (HBCUs), in Nashville who vaulted to the forefront of the civil rights movement.

Lafayette’s alma mater of barely 100 students, the American Baptist Theological Seminary, is now called American Baptist College and was granted an HBCU designation in 2013.

In 2018, Lafayette, now a 78-year-old minister, makes the 22-mile drive from his home in Tuskegee, Alabama, to Auburn University on Monday afternoons to teach the principles of global leadership for nonviolence, employing the teachings of King and Gandhi. Lafayette’s Alternatives to Violence Project, started in 1975, engages prison populations in conflict reconciliation and is used in 60 nations.

In the 1960s, Lafayette even wrote songs and sang with the Freedom Singers and Nashville Quartet. They sang freedom songs at such venues as New York’s Carnegie Hall, including the “Dog Song,” which was about the irony of dogs from black and white families playing together in rural Southern areas while the children of those same families couldn’t mingle because of segregation. That history has been preserved in more than one Smithsonian museum.

Another singer exhibited his reverence for King and the movement. King’s funeral was scheduled for April 9, 1968; the Academy Awards were set for April 8. Entertainer Sammy Davis Jr. and other stars threatened to boycott if the ceremony wasn’t rescheduled, according to the book Inside Oscar.

Davis, during an appearance on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson on April 5, declared, “I certainly think any black man should not appear. I find it morally incongruous to sing ‘Talk To The Animals’ [from the Oscar-nominated movie Doctor Dolittle] while the man who could make a better world for my children is lying in state.”

Yes, Hollywood stopped for King; the Academy Awards were rescheduled for April 10.

“Sammy and several other movie stars came to the funeral,” Lafayette said. “They viewed Dr. King as a star, just like themselves. That’s why they came.”

Some SCLC members bandied about the idea of treating King’s funeral like the royals of Buckingham Palace in England, as in the splendor of men wearing top hats and coats with tails.

“Some of them wanted to treat him like royalty,” Lafayette recalled.

But they ultimately thought better of it, instead opting for the images of King’s legacy.

As King had said, in part, in his previous “Drum Major” address from Feb. 4, 1968, “I won’t have any money to leave behind. I won’t have the fine and luxurious things of life to leave behind. I just want to leave a committed life behind …”

Martin Luther King Jr. (seated, center), Andrew Young (far left, back row) and Bernard Lafayette Jr. (far right, back row) with a group of people in 1967.

Courtesy of Bernard Lafayette Jr.

Keep it simple, the SCLC decided. Hence regular men’s attire. And a mule-drawn, wooden farmer’s wagon to carry King’s casket, symbolic signs of poverty.

The “Drum Major” sermon served as King’s eulogy, per widow Coretta Scott King’s request.

The next two months were both utterly miserable and marginally productive for the SCLC. King’s successor, the solid but less magnetic Rev. Ralph David Abernathy, was determined to launch the Poor People’s Campaign, undoubtedly one of King’s most ambitious projects, which originally was scheduled for April 22.

King’s master plan: put issues such as jobs, unemployment insurance, a reasonable minimum wage and education for the poor on the national front burner.

The day after Coretta King led a women’s march on Mother’s Day on May 12, a collection of plywood tents and shacks were constructed on Washington’s National Mall. It was called Resurrection City, with a population of about 3,000. Rev. Jesse Jackson was named its mayor.

Then came the rain. “It seemed like for 40 days and 40 nights,” Lafayette remembered. “And, man, it was muddy.”

His post-campaign analysis: “It was very challenging and difficult. It was Dr. King’s idea, but he wasn’t with us. So we had to glean from him what we thought was his interpretation of the campaign.”

Lafayette spoke of a bizarre backstory to the campaign: For many of the nation’s poor, especially in the rural South, their only mode of travel was by mule. Therefore, some of the campaign participants wound their way to the nation’s capital by mule-drawn wagons. The federal government authorized some staff members, Lafayette said, to make sure the mules were equipped with special shoes for travel on pavement and soil as well as the correct food.

What about special precautions for the impoverished human beings making the journey? “No, the people had to care for themselves,” Lafayette answered.

The campaign did result in a few lesser victories, such as the federal government allocating free surplus food for distribution in hundreds of U.S. counties in need and agreements with government agencies to hire the poor to lead programs for the poor.

Abernathy, of course, desired more impactful actions, but he had to settle for the pocket-sized ones.

A half-century after the assassination of King, the implementation of the Poor People’s Campaign and the prophetic “Drum Major” speech, a part of King’s legacy was displayed on March 24 in Washington.

His granddaughter, 9-year-old Yolanda Renee King, spoke in Washington at the March for Our Lives rally against gun violence. She told an international audience: “My grandfather had a dream that his four little children will not be judged by the color of their skin, but the content of their character. I have a dream that enough is enough. And that this should be a gun-free world, period.”

She was part of a remarkable scene mixing the past and the present before our very eyes. And it was a gun that killed her grandfather, a horrific murder by a white man that triggered race riots and street violence in at least 100 cities nationwide.

Said Lafayette: “That’s why I have great hope for the future. These young people are making sense, and they seem very determined. You call it passing the torch.”

For Lafayette, Yolanda Renee brought back memories of his last conversation with her grandfather at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis.

On that fateful day, 50 years ago.