In a 1968 photograph taken by Moneta Sleet Jr., a veiled and stoic Coretta Scott King comforts her youngest child at the funeral of her husband, Martin Luther King Jr. It is 5-year-old Bernice King’s eyes lingering in the camera’s gaze that haunt the viewer. The image, which was disseminated via dozens of wires, would become one of Sleet’s most iconic pictures. But it almost wasn’t taken: When arrangements for press-pool access to the funeral neglected to include a black photographer, Coretta Scott King insisted that Sleet—who’d photographed the King family for Ebony magazine since 1955—be let in or no press would be allowed inside at all. The picture won Sleet the Pulitzer Prize for Feature Photography in 1969. He became the first African American photographer and journalist to receive the award.
Sleet is just one photographer who has pieces from his extensive body of work in the archives of the Johnson Publishing Company, which for more than 70 years was the foremost chronicler of African American life and culture in mass-communication media. John H. Johnson started his publishing empire with a $500 loan, launching Negro Digest (later renamed Black World) in 1942. Building on the success of the periodical, he launched Ebony magazine in 1945, and later Jet magazine in 1951. As Life magazine ascended in popularity among the white American middle class and depicted a new consumerist ideal, quotidian black American culture was conspicuously absent from the narratives. Ebony, Johnson said, aimed to “show not only the Negroes but also white people that Negroes got married, had beauty contests, gave parties, ran successful businesses, and did all the other normal things of life.”