Sleet, Moneta J., Jr.

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Sleet, Moneta J., Jr.

February 14, 1926
September 30, 1996

In 1969 Moneta J. Sleet Jr. became the first African American to win a Pulitzer Prize in photography for his now world-renowned image of Coretta Scott King at her husband's funeral, her upturned face shielded by a heavy veil as she embraced her young daughter Bernice. Sleet, although employed by the monthly Ebony magazine, became eligible for the prestigious newspaper award when his black-and-white film containing the image was let into a pool for wire-service use and subsequently published in daily newspapers throughout the country.

Sleet's major contribution to photojournalism has been his extensive documentation of the marches, meetings, and rallies of the civil rights movement. He also has a special talent for photographing people. Over the years, he produced sensitive, humanistic, and, on occasion, humorous portraits of celebrities as well as ordinary men, women, and children of America, Africa, and the Caribbean. His photographs are powerful and direct and show a genuine respect for his subjects.

Sleet was born in Owensboro, Kentucky, where he grew up attending the local segregated public schools. His career as a photographer began in boyhood, when his parents gave him a box camera, and continued into high school. Sleet studied photography at Kentucky State College under the tutelage of John Williams, a family friend who was dean of the college and an accomplished photographer. When Sleet interrupted his studies as a business major to serve in World War II, he resolved to enter photography as a profession, though he returned and finished his degree. His mentor moved on to Maryland State College, and in 1948 invited Sleet to set up a photography department there. After a short time in Maryland, Sleet moved to New York, studying at the School of Modern Photography before attending New York University, where he obtained a master's degree in journalism in 1950.

After a brief stint as a sportswriter for the Amsterdam News, Sleet joined the staff of Our World, a popular black picture magazine. His five years there were training for his photojournalistic sensibility. He and the other staff photographers and writers were subject to the high editorial standards of the publisher, John Davis. It was under Davis's auspices that Sleet produced one of his most engaging stories, a 1953 series on the coal-mining town of Superior, West Virginia.

Our World ceased publication two years later, and Sleet joined the Johnson Publishing Company's New Yorkbased illustrated monthly magazine Ebony, where he continued as staff photographer. Publisher John H. Johnson sent him to the far corners of the world on stories. In addition, coverage of the fledgling civil rights movement established the reputation of Ebony 's sister publication Jet, and in the early years Sleet's photographs appeared in both.

On assignment in 1956, Sleet first met Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., then a twenty-seven-year-old Atlanta minister, emerging as the leader of the civil rights movement. Their association flourished as the movement dominated the black press, with Sleet covering King's receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in Sweden in 1964, his marching from Selma to Montgomery in 1965, and his funeral in Atlanta following his assassination in April 1968.

Sleet's recollection of the circumstances leading to his memorable Pulitzer Prizewinning photograph of Coretta Scott King was still vivid:

There was complete pandemoniumnothing was yet organized because the people from SCLC [the Southern Christian Leadership Conference] were all in a state of shock. We had the world press descending upon Atlanta, plus the FBI, who were there investigating.

We were trying to get an arrangement to shoot in the church. They said 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 in 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." Since I was with Johnson Publishing, I became part of the pool. In those days there weren't many blacks [in journalism], whether writers or photographers.

The day of the funeral, Bob Johnson, the executive editor of Jet, had gotten in the church and he beckoned for me and said, Here's a spot right here. It was a wonderful spot. It was then a matter of photographing what was going on. It was so dramatic; everywhere you turned the cameraDaddy King, Vice President Humphrey, Nixon, Jackie Kennedy, Bobby Kennedy, Thurgood Marshall, Dr. Ralph Bunche reading the program with a magnifying glass. I considered myself fortunate to be there documenting everything. If I wasn't there I knew I would be somewhere crying.

We had made arrangements with AP [the Associated Press] 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 (Taped interview, New York, 1986).

Sleet's career also encompassed the great period of African independence, when in the 1950s autonomous nations emerged from former colonies. His first experience in "pack" journalism abroad came on Vice President Richard Nixon's 1957 trip through Africa, where Sleet photographed in Liberia, Libya, and the Sudan. It was on this trip he photographed Kwame Nkrumah at the moment of Ghana's independence. The results of the trip gained Sleet an Overseas Press Club citation in 1957.

Sleet's long career as a photojournalist took him all over the United States and Africa; he also visited and photographed on assignment in South America, Russia, the West Indies, and Europe. Though photo essays and portrait profiles made up the majority of his output, he also photographed the children who tagged alongside him as he worked. To Sleet, the father of three grown children, these personal portraits were the most rewarding.

In addition to winning a Pulitzer Prize in feature photography and a citation for excellence from the Overseas Press Club of America, Sleet received awards from the National Urban League (1969) and the National Association of Black Journalists (1978). Over the years, his work has appeared in several group exhibitions at museums, including the Studio Museum in Harlem and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In 1970 solo exhibitions were held at the City Art Museum of St. Louis and the Detroit Public Library. A retrospective exhibition organized by the New York Public Library in 1986 toured nationally for three years. Sleet had just returned from an assignment for Ebony at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics when he died on September 30, 1996.

See also King, Martin Luther, Jr.; Photography, U.S.


"Image Maker: The Artistry of Moneta Sleet, Jr." Ebony 42 (January 1987): 6674.

Moneta Sleet, Jr.: Pulitzer Prize Photojournalist. New York, 1986. New York Public Library exhibit brochure.

Saunders, Doris E. Special Moments in African-American History: 19551996: The Photographs of Moneta Sleet, Jr., Ebony Magazine's Pulitzer Prize Winner. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1998.

julia van haaften (1996)
Updated by publisher 2005