Photo show stirs memories

August 05, 1991|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,Evening News Staff

CORETTA SCOTT King's sorrowful face, veiled in the tragedy of her husband's assassination, is a universally recognized symbol of the American civil rights movement -- its triumphs and its appalling human toll.

In that regard, Moneta J. Sleet Jr.'s Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph of Martin Luther King's widow speaks as well of his own experience as a black man who grew up in a small, segregated Southern town.

"When Dr. King was assassinated, I was torn apart. He was my leader, too," Sleet says in a phone interview from his office in New York City.

"As a Southern man, I was amazed at the turnaround in terms of legislation that was passed," Sleet says. "I came from Owensboro, Ky., where there was a school across the street. I couldn't attend that school. I had to walk a mile to go to another school. I never thought the day would come, but today the town is completely integrated."

"Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Movement," a photographic history of the struggle for equal rights in this country, features the work of Sleet, Louise Martin, Frederick Baldwin and Benedict J. Fernandez III. The show, which was organized at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, opens tomorrow at the Baltimore Museum of Art and continues through Sept 29.

It is not by accident that Sleet and his comrades were present to record the most dramatic moments of the Civil Rights Movement. "Dr. King and his chief aides were well aware of the power of the press. They knew they had to enlist the aid of public opinion in order to make non-violence really work," Sleet says.

"Nothing was as effective as [photographs of the Birmingham demonstration] with the fire hoses and dogs jumping on people in terms of gathering public opinion. The march from Selma to Montgomery [in 1965] made them realize how serious this thing was," he says.

As a child, Sleet, 65, received a box camera from his parents. His interest in recording the life around him has never slacked.

In 1955, Sleet joined the Johnson Publishing Co.'s Ebony magazine, where he remains today. As a staff photographer, Sleet has traveled around the world recording critical moments and personalities in black history.

He has covered the independence celebrations of African nations, the aftermath of the Miami riots, a young Muhammad Ali, Ethiopia's Emperor Haile Selassie and a drug-ravaged Billie Holliday a year before her death.

Sleet's less notable but equally eloquent subjects include beauty contestants, debutantes, school children, death row inmates and the kids who follow him wherever he goes and plead, "Take my picture, Mister."

Sleet's first encounter with King came on assignment in 1956 when the 28-year-old Atlanta minister was emerging as the leader of the fledgling civil rights movement.

Sleet went on to document King's life -- as he relaxed for a rare moment with his family, plotted strategy with aides, marched and sang in torrential rains, received the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo, Norway, in 1964. In 1969, Sleet became the first black man to receive the Pulitzer Prize for his portrait of Coretta Scott King and daughter Bernice in the Atlanta church where the funeral took place.

Soft-spoken and modest, Sleet regards his famous photograph as a tool of the civil rights struggle but is reluctant to glorify his own role in that struggle.

"I like to think that the photograph . . . serves as a reminder to the people in this country," he says. "People will look at it and stop and say, 'Look what we did. Look at what bigotry and intolerance can make someone do.'"

Sleet continues to be a "working photographer," traveling frequently, and is planning a book of his photographs.

The exhibit "Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Movement" will be at the Baltimore Museum of Art, on Art Museum Drive, tomorrow through Sept. 29. Museum hours are Tuesdays through Fridays, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.; Thursdays, 10 a.m. to 7 p.m.; and Saturdays and Sundays, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Admission is $3.50 for visitors older than 18, $2.50 for senior citizens and students; free every Thursday. For more information, call the BMA at 396-7100.

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