by Dick Kraus
The civil rights movement was at it’s height in the mid 60’s
and I had covered a lot of the local action. There were demonstrations,
almost daily somewhere in the NY Metropolitan area. Some were peaceful.
Many were violent. We didn’t have bullet proof vests back then,
but we wore helmets on occasions when rocks, bricks and bottles were
being thrown. Wearing a press card and carrying a camera didn’t
necessarily mark you as a neutral non-combatant. In fact, such identification
often drew the wrath of both sides. Often we were targeted by the
activists and demonstrators and at the same time were pushed around
by the police who were trying to keep the peace.
I recall one particularly difficult year. There were riots in local
black communities on Long Island as well as in Harlem and Newark,
NJ. If I wasn’t at one, I was at another. It was, as they said,
a long, hot summer. I was looking forward to a well deserved two week
vacation late in August. My wife and four children and I usually rented
a little run down, rustic cabin on a mountainside overlooking the
beautiful Delaware River on the NY/PA border. The kids could romp
around in the meadows and swim in the river and I could fish and fish
and fish. It was a great vacation for everyone. Everyone except my
wife who still had to cook and clean and watch the kids. But, she
endured it like a trooper for my sake and because the kids loved it.
Anyway, as we were packing up the station wagon for the trip, I told
the family that I didn’t want any radios for two weeks. Newark
was still burning from the latest riots and I was fatigued to the
bone. I didn’t want to hear about civil rights or war or famine
or any disaster. I just wanted serenity to refresh my bones and my
soul. The kids put up a fuss since they were old enough to be into
the rock and roll scene and two weeks without a radio would be just
too much for them. They didn’t mind the fact that we had no
hot water in the cabin and had to use an out house and bathe in the
river. But denying them a radio was too primitive. So, I relented
on the radio on the guarantee that they would shut it off as soon
as they caught sight of me coming up the path from the dock to the
cabin. For two weeks, I didn’t want to hear any news broadcasts.
I didn’t even play the car radio for the 3 hours it took to
get to the cabin.
All went well for the first week. The kids kept their part of the
bargain and I regained my serenity. On the second week, I came back
to the cabin for some lunch and the kids had the radio playing some
rock. “Ooops, here’s Dad.” said the oldest boy,
and he started for the radio. “Oh, leave it on as long as it’s
just music.” I told him. I finished lunch and was enjoying my
coffee and a pipe when the news came on. I jumped up and started across
the room for the radio but it was too late. The dreaded news broadcast
had begun. ***
“In the top of the news,” began the announcer, “8
year old Johnny Smith broke his leg when he fell out of a tree in
Farmer Byrnes orchard. He is in good condition in Port Jervis Memorial
Hospital. The St. Luke’s Women’s Auxiliary is holding
an old fashioned quilting bee in the church basement. On the crime
scene, the county police department has noticed a sharp increase in
house break-ins. Up from 17 last year to 23 this year.”
Not one word about Newark, civil rights, the war in Vietnam. It came
to me as a revelation that there is another world out there.
A year or so later, I was given an assignment to take photos of an
as yet unheard of civil rights leader. His name was Malcolm X and
he was with a group known then as the Black Muslims. The reporter
had already interviewed him and I was to get some pictures of him
for the story. Nobody knew much about Malcolm X or the Black Muslims.
But the reporter told me that they have a different approach to civil
rights so be careful about what I say.
I was to meet with Mr. X, ah, Mr. Malcolm....now, what is the correct
polite form of address, here? I certainly didn’t know. I was
supposed to meet him in a cafeteria in Harlem run by the Black Muslims.
walked into the place, I was the only white face there. Every
eye in the cafeteria regarded me with suspicion. I went up to
the counter and spoke to the woman there, who was wearing a Muslim
headdress. “I am supposed to meet with Mr. Malcolm X. ”
I had decided on that approach on the hour long drive to Harlem.
“Who are you?’ I was asked. I identified myself and
was told to wait at a table in the back. I sat down and shortly
thereafter, a young, light skinned black man sat opposite me.
He explained that he would have to ask me some questions because
the Black Muslims were concerned about Malcolm X’s security.
Their leader, Elijah Muhammad, was preaching that the white man
was the devil, and I was white. No doubt about that. So, my interviewer
lead me up and down my beliefs in justice and equality and civil
rights. Now, I always thought myself to be liberal minded. And
I guess I was, to white society. I never thought about what the
black mind might perceive me to be. I resented being questioned
like that, because I always held to the credo that during working
hours, I had no opinion. I would do my job in an unbiased fashion,
no matter what my personal beliefs were.
I explained this to the man asking the questions.
He smiled and said, “Yes, but we just can’t be too
careful.” He extended his hand and said, “Go ahead
and take your pictures. I’m Malcolm X.”
X, a rising power in the Black Muslim movement, reads
a Black Muslim newspaper under a portrait of Leader Elijah
Muhammad. He is in a Harlem cafeteria owned and operated
by the Black Muslims.
© Newsday Photo by Dick Kraus 3/13/61