Moneta Sleet, Jr: Owensboro’s Pulitzer Prize Winning Photographer
On a table inside the chambers of United States District Judge Gregory Sleet lies a book. The cover of that book is a picture that was taken by Judge Sleet’s father, Moneta Sleet, Jr.
The black and white photo captures a moment in time that signified an era. It was one of thousands of photos taken during hundreds of assignments all around the world – a single frame that was a culmination of skills acquired from a career of shooting photographs for such notable publications as Ebony, Jet, and Our World magazines.
But this particular frame made history.
The photo, taken of the grieving Coretta Scott King and her daughter Bernice at the funeral for Dr. Martin Luther King, earned Moneta Sleet, Jr. a Pulitzer Prize in 1969, making Moneta the first black man ever to receive the award for journalism.
The Associated Press processed the black and white film immediately following the service, and put it out on the wire. It became Sleet’s most iconic photo of a career spanning 40 years, which took him to the front lines of the Civil Rights Movement and all around the globe.
Sleet’s long-time employer, John H. Johnson, editor and publisher of Ebony and Jet magazines, dispatched him to points all over the world – Liberia, Libya, Sudan, Ghana, Gambia, Kenya, Nigeria, Norway, the Soviet Union, South America and the West Indies, as well as across the United States.
His body of work includes photos of nearly every entertainer in the 60’s, 70’s, 80’s and early 90’s. He was a sought-after photographer because celebrities and foreign dignitaries could trust that he would not exploit their photos – or the moment.
Two years after his death, Johnson Publishing released a book honoring the legacy of his work: Special Moments in African American History 1955-1996: The Photographs of Moneta Sleet, Jr., Ebony Magazine’s Pulitzer Prize Winner. (This is the book that sits in his son’s chambers).
Sleet’s love for photography can be traced right back here to Owensboro, in the house he grew up in on Seventh Street, which is now marked with a historical marker plaque across the street.
Moneta Sleet, Jr. was born on February 14, 1926, to Ozetta Allensworth Sleet and Moneta Sleet, Sr. He said growing up in Owensboro was “a real pleasant experience” in Special Moments. “Despite the segregated pattern, my school years were a good, wholesome experience for me.”
As an adult, when Sleet won the Mayor’s Award of Excellence, he again referred to growing up in Owensboro. “Every parent looked out for every child, and every teacher taught every student as if the quality of their life depended on it. And as I have found out many times since I left, it did.”
Moneta’s parents gave him a small box camera when he was nine or ten, and he began “fooling around” taking photos of the family. When he got to Western High School, he joined the camera club. “We would go into the makeshift darkroom in a little bathroom and develop pictures,” Sleet recalled in Special Moments. “And I became fascinated by it.”
After graduating Western High, Sleet attended Kentucky State College, where he spent all the time he could in the photography studio. Sleet then served in India and Burma with an all-black unit in WWII, and used his G.I Bill to finish his business degree. Soon after he took a photography course at the School of Modern Photography in New York, and received his Master’s Degree in Journalism from NYU.
The World through a Lens
Moneta’s daughter, Lisa, lives in Baldwin, New York, in her late parents’ house. As we spoke on the phone, she walked into a room with about 20 boxes of her father’s belongings. As she combed through boxes, looking for the proclamation from the Mayor of Owensboro (see sidebar), she found a letter from President Bill Clinton, her dad’s old typewriter, canisters of undeveloped film, and the actual Pulitzer Prize medal. She took a quiet moment with that one, and then continued…
“There’s so much stuff here; it’s like a museum. He was very meticulous. He kept everything. It’s all labeled and categorized. My father loved traveling. I think he went to Africa 26 times. Paris, Germany, lots of places. And every time, we’d gather as a family and he’d show us a slide show of the places he saw.”
The old family projector still sits in that room, too, along with reels, slides, and film.
Lisa was 12 when her dad took the Pulitzer-winning photo, and remembers watching her father work at fashion shows and other events. “I used to love watching him work. He was serious about it when he was shooting. His subjects got all of his attention, no matter who it was,” Lisa said, retelling a story of the moment when Moneta learned he had won the Pulitzer. Well, almost. He didn’t actually take the phone call because he was in the middle of a shoot with Harry Belafonte. He said he’d have to call them back when he was done with the shoot. “He was that dedicated to his assignments,” Lisa summarized.
“I didn’t appreciate what my dad did when I was a child. He was just dad to us,” Judge Sleet told me during our phone interview. But he clearly remembers the moment he realized his father was a pretty big deal. “I was 13 years old. We were dropping dad off at the airport, and I was expecting my mother to park, but she drove right up to a side door. We walked into a double door that opened up into a large room with a lot of people. My dad told me to stay there and he would be right back. When he came back, he walked over to me with Martin Luther King, Jr. beside him. He (Dr. King) walked right up to me, bent down a little bit to my level, shook my hand, and looked me right in the eye.” Another photographer, G. Marshall Wilson, took a photo of the handshake. In 1994, Wilson found a copy of it and mailed it to Moneta. Today, that photo also hangs in Judge Sleet’s chambers.
Although it was just another “one of dad’s trips” to young Gregory, the flight that day was headed to Oslo, Norway, because Moneta had been personally invited to photograph Dr. King’s Nobel Peace Prize reception. Also in Gregory’s possession today is a program from the Nobel ceremony, autographed by Dr. King with the handwritten message “To Gregory, for whom I wish a great future and whose father I admire very much.”
“Here was one of the greatest men in history expressing admiration for my dad,” Greg recalled.
Lisa and Greg’s brother, Mike, had Down syndrome, an experience Lisa says impacted the whole Sleet family. “Mike taught us all about unconditional love. I think Mike helped my dad be a more compassionate person, and I think that came through in his photography in a way.”
In Lisa’s recollection, Moneta’s favorite thing was being at home with his family. “He enjoyed mowing the lawn and normal things everybody did. He kept his work separate, really. We didn’t know the ugly things he was seeing – with the marches and things like that – until we were much older. He protected us.”
The moment Moneta couldn’t keep from his children was April 4, 1968, the day Dr. King was assassinated. “We were at home when the news announcement came on the radio. We all heard it together. I’ll never forget the look on my dad’s face,” Lisa recalled.
Five days later, Moneta photographed the funeral at the request of Coretta Scott King, where he shot the now-famous photograph. He later wrote of the photo: “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 the child who I was thinking about at the time.”
The City of Owensboro Declared February 24, 2000, Moneta Sleet, Jr. Day with a celebration at St. Paul AME Church on Elm Street. City officials also unveiled a bronze historical marker at Max Rhoads Park on Seventh Street.
Official Proclamation by Mayor Waymond Morris:
WHEREAS, Moneta Sleet, Jr., was the first African American to win the Pulitzer Prize for his photograph of the family of Dr.Martin Luther King, Jr., at the slain civil rights leaders’ funeral; and
WHEREAS, Mr.Sleet inspired a generation of photographers through a distinguished 41-year career with Ebony and Jet magazines; and
WHEREAS, his photographs documented the American civil rights movement and African Americans’ struggle for independence; and
WHEREAS, he is a native of Owensboro who grew up on Seventh Street and graduated from Western High School; and
WHEREAS, Owensboro and Kentucky officials will dedicate a historical marker in his honor February 24, 2000, at Max Rhoads Park.
NOW, THEREFORE, I, Waymond O. Morris, Mayor of the City of Owensboro, Kentucky, do hereby proclaim February 24, 2000, as “MONETA SLEET, JR., DAY” in Owensboro in honor of his contributions to the civil rights movement and to journalism.