Moneta Sleet, Jr., a Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer involved in the Civil Rights movement, was born on February 14, 1926. His parents, Ozetta Allensworth Sleet and Moneta Sleet, Sr., raised him in Owensboro, Kentucky. At a very young age, his parents gave him a small box camera, which he used to take pictures of his family around the house. This marked the beginnings of Sleet’s lifelong love for photography.
Sleet attended Western High School, near his hometown where he joined the camera club. After graduating, he attended Kentucky State University, where he continued his passion for photography. Sleet then served with an all-black unit in World War II, and after his service, returned to Kentucky State University to obtain his business degree. Following his graduation, Sleet continued his education at New York University, where he took photography courses at the School of Modern Photography. He received his master’s degree in journalism in 1950.
Sleet worked for multiple African American publications over the course of his career. He began as a sportswriter for the Amsterdam News in New York City and then the magazine Our World. Later, Johnson Publishing Company, the parent company of Ebony and Jet magazines based in Chicago, Illinois, offered him a position in 1955.
While working for Johnson Publishing, Sleet traveled the world for his journalism, visiting Liberia, Libya, Ghana, Kenya, Norway, the Soviet Union, South America, and numerous locations across the United States. He balanced his career with his family life: wife Juanita who he married in 1950, two sons Gregory and Michael, and his daughter Lisa.
One of Sleet’s many assignments was to cover Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Sleet reported on the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955, King’s acceptance of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, the Selma to Montgomery March in 1965, and was given access to the King family at home. Sleet and King formed a bond that lasted until King’s death in 1968.
Following the assassination of Dr. King, Sleet photographed King’s funeral on April 9, 1968 at Atlanta, Georgia’s Ebenezer Baptist Church. The following year, Sleet’s image of the grieving Coretta Scott King won the Pulitzer Prize for feature photography. This made Sleet the first black man to receive a Pulitzer Prize in any field and the first person to win an award while working for a black publication.
Sleet earned other awards over his lifetime including the Citation for Excellence from the Overseas Press Club of America, and awards from the National Urban League and the National Association of Black Journalists. He was also able to exhibit his art in notable spaces, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. On February 24, 2000, his hometown of Owensboro declared the date Moneta Sleet Jr. Day and installed a bronze historical marker in commemoration of his contributions to the civil rights movement and journalism.
Moneta Sleet Jr., a member of Sigma Pi Phi fraternity, continued to work for Johnson Publishing Company until his death from cancer in 1996. He died in Chicago at the age of 70.