by Dick Kraus
Staff Photographer
Newsday (retired)

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., 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.

When I 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.”

Malcolm 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

Dick Kraus



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