When the Newseum reopens the updated Pulitzer Prize Photographs Gallery on Sept. 16, one of the featured photographs will be one taken by Moneta Sleet Jr., the Ebony magazine veteran photographer who died 20 years ago on Sept. 30.
Sleet’s black-and-white image of widow Coretta Scott King solemnly clutching daughter Bernice at Martin Luther King Jr.’s funeral in 1968 made him the first black man to win the Pulitzer Prize (poet Gwendolyn Brooks was the first African American to win the award in 1950), and the first African American to win the prize for journalism.
Sleet spent 41 years at Ebony, 13 of them chronicling the key moments in King’s life. He was there in 1955 when King organized the Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott; in 1964 when King won the Nobel Peace Prize; in 1965 when King led the march from Selma, Ala., to Montgomery. And he was there on April 9, 1968, when King was mourned at Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church, five days after a sniper’s bullet killed the civil rights leader.
Sleet originally was excluded from taking the famous photograph. When Mrs. King discovered that the press pool covering her husband’s funeral included no black photographers, she sent word: If Sleet wasn’t allowed into the church, there would be no photographers, period.
“In a moment of most profound grief, Coretta Scott King had to deal with yet another blow to the freedoms of the black press when African American journalists were not included in the press pool covering the funeral,” said Indira Williams Babic, the Newseum’s director of photography and visual resources. “Mrs. King took a stand for social equality and secured access for Sleet.”
Sleet, who said he wasn’t an objective reporter at the funeral, described how he captured the prize-winning moment.
“I was photographing the child as she was fidgeting on her mama’s lap. 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.”
Babic explained that the focus on a mother and child’s quiet moment of sorrow is what made Sleet’s photograph so compelling.
“One of the greatest powers of this photo is that it elicits universal empathy. To those who see it, this is not a black mom and a black child. This is a family joined in grief. It could be anybody,” she said.
A visitor favorite, the Pulitzer Prize Photographs Gallery features the most comprehensive collection of Pulitzer Prize-winning photographs ever assembled. The gallery includes photographs from every Pulitzer Prize-winning entry since 1942, when the award was first presented.
2016 marks the centennial of the awarding of the Pulitzer Prizes. Since January, a portrait of Joseph Pulitzer, painted by American artist John Singer Sargent, has been on display in the gallery. The oil-on-canvas portrait — from the collection of Pulitzer’s granddaughter-in-law Emily Rauh Pulitzer — is on loan to the Newseum throughout 2016.