“This is Selma, Alabama, where there are more Negroes in jail with me than there are on the voting rolls,” wrote Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in his “Letter From a Selma Jail,” in 1965. Weeks later, 4,000 people marched the 50-mile stretch from Selma to Montgomery, where Governor George Wallace was ensconced in the state capitol, a Confederate flag outside. The marchers braved rain, tear gas, bullets, and intimidation to make the trek. Their efforts resulted in the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Scenes from the march are recreated in the vivid photographs of Moneta Sleet Jr., now on display at the Public Library Cultural Center. The spirit of a woman clapping her hands in the rain, the verve of a one-legged man on crutches keeping up with the crowd, the word “VOTE” painted across a boys forehead are all images of Selma.
Sleet met King in 1956, while on assignment for Ebony and Jet magazines. He photographed the 28-year-old minister at home with his family and on the steps of his parish, the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. In later years, he followed King to Washington, D.C., and to Oslo, Norway, where King collected the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964. Sleet’s famous portrait of Coretta Scott King attending her husband’s funeral won him in 1969 the first Pulitzer Prize for photography ever to a black man.
“The Pulitzer Prize was incidental,” Sleet told me. “It was really about Dr. King’s funeral. America needs to be reminded constantly of what happened, and for that reason I’m glad (the photo) is out there.” Calling himself a “nonobjective observer,” Sleet said of the period, “I was personally involved with the civil rights movement. How could you be black and not be involved?”
The series of 125 black-and-white and color photographs include scenes from the Caribbean and Africa, celebrity portraits, and street and rural scenes of the U.S. A Palmetto, Florida, billboard reads, “Westinghouse Laundromat . . . Especially for Colored Folks.” Prison inmates on death row play dominoes on the floor between their cells. Light-skinned debutantes stand poised in pearls and evening gowns. A child covered with lather sits in a washtub on a kitchen floor.
The contrast in these photographs is striking, both in its depth and continuity. The flow of a spiral staircase behind a turbaned gentleman in Khartoum, the archway of a mosque in Dakar, the stripes of light between bars in a cell block demonstrate Sleet’s sense of composition and rhythm. The play of fire and rain in Oslo, as Norwegians greet Dr. King, evokes intimacy, anticipation. Themes of honor and suffering carry through these photographs. Betty Shabazz weeps at the funeral of her husband, Malcolm X. A smiling Rosa Parks wears a striped blouse. Kwame Nkrumah receives the documents of independence from the Duchess of Kent in 1957, making Ghana the first black African country south of the Sahara to emerge as an independent nation.
Images of segregation recur in Sleet’s more recent photographs of Miami: a 1980 shot of apprehensive-looking Haitian girls with their belongings wrapped in paper is particularly striking.
“They were in a detention center in Miami,” Sleet said of the photo. “They were coming into almost as bad a situation here.”
Sleet was born in Owensboro, Kentucky, in 1926 and grew up attending segregated schools. He sees the racial climate in America today worsening.
“Howard Beach was awful. You expect what happened in Forsyth County, Georgia, but Brooklyn is something else again. But it’s really always been in the north too . . . the situation is almost regressing. It’s not healthy. Overt racism has come into being. . . . It’s harder to get a handle on it, photographywise . . . it was easier in the 60s — in those days, something dramatic was happening all the time.”
His celebrity portraits include the ravaged face of Billie Holiday with the tracks on her arms in full view, Bill Cosby and Phylicia Rashad, Reggie Jackson at Yankee Stadium, and Dizzy Gillespie with inflated cheeks. While impressive, these photographs represent the lesser half of the exhibit.
In addition to the Pulitzer, Sleet won the Overseas Press Club Citation for Excellence for his 1957 pictures from Africa. He also received awards from the National Urban League in 1969 and the National Association of Black Journalists in 1978.
These photographs are on display through May 30 at the Cultural Center, 78 E. Washington. Admission is free; for information call 346-3278.