Journalism is a powerful tool in the American Experiment. When used for ill, there are catastrophic consequences. Yet, many times, our fiercest liberators reside in the newsroom. Louis Lomax is one such man that writer Thomas Aiello has brought out of obscurity to shed light on the trials and tribulations of those who wielded the power of the pen for the common good.
The Journalist and the Movement: On The Life and Times of Louis Lomax
By Elias Rodriques
There was a time when journalists played some of the most consequential supporting roles in histories of the Civil Rights Movement. Consider the often-told story of the Voting Rights Act: On March 7, 1965, six hundred protesters demonstrated for the right to vote in Selma, Alabama. Local and state police assaulted them. Journalists photographed and videotaped the cops’ attacks, broadcasting their brutality to the nation. After seeing the footage, then President Lyndon B. Johnson convened a special session of Congress to urge the representatives to pass the Voting Rights Act, which they did that summer. In this canonical narrative, the protestors may be the protagonist, but journalists play a pivotal role. Their heroic documenting, the story goes, made possible the federal government’s intervention in defending the right to vote.
Though the press receded to the background in histories of the Civil Rights Movement, in favor of narratives about grassroots movements and lesser-known leaders, the fourth estate’s role has recently been the subject of renewed attention. In the last few years, Christopher Tinson’s history of Liberator Magazine and Ethan Michaeli’s history of The Chicago Defender have argued that Black periodicals were essential to the Movement because they were some of the few venues to circulate Black arguments against Jim Crow—expressing a dedication to Black radical politics that arose, in part, from an obligation to Black readers. “[T]he Negro press,” Defender columnist Chuck Stone said in 1964, “must find the soul of the Negro community and reflect it in its news pages.” During the 1950s and ’60s, the Black press worked alongside Black communities pushing for change, informing Black readers while voicing their demands, marching in the streets while publicizing their protests, and, above all else, struggling to end Jim Crow.
But these histories of publications do not focus on the life of the lonely Black journalist, who slept in segregated accommodations while reporting on demonstrations. Thomas Aiello’s recent The Life and Times of Louis Lomax, a biography of the eponymous Black writer, fills this gap. In his story of Lomax’s life, from the writer’s modest upbringing in Georgia through his television show’s national syndication up to his untimely death, Aiello portrays Lomax as a deeply contradictory figure. He was a Black nationalist sympathizer who advocated for integration and a reformist who argued for revolution. “The trajectory of that thought,” Aiello writes, “was riddled with inconsistencies, but it mirrored the inconsistencies of a country in the throes of dramatic change.” As Aiello argues, Lomax’s life’s work was to push Americans to resolve those inconsistencies and grant the rights of citizenship to all citizens.
In his books, in television programs in which he was featured, and on his television show, The Louis Lomax Show, Lomax did so by introducing the American public to many Black radicals and by playing the foil to them, highlighting their viewpoints in the way contrast sharpens a line. He introduced the country to Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam in a documentary, and his show hosted such luminaries as Martin Luther King Jr. and James Farmer. In Malcolm’s presence, he advocated for moderation and integration; when Malcolm was not around, he expressed his sympathies with Black nationalism. As Aiello makes clear in The Life and Times of Louis Lomax, Lomax may have fallen out of historical memory, but, as a one-man embodiment of the Civil Rights Movement’s ideological diversity, he was integral to ensuring that the movement did not.
Lomax was born in 1920 and raised by his grandparents, one of whom was a preacher and the other a playwright, in Valdosta, Georgia—“the deepest of the Deep South,” as Aiello writes. Valdosta confronted the young Lomax with the violence of Jim Crow at every chance. When he was eight, a white man sicked his bulldog on Lomax, as he later remembered in the essay “A Georgia Boy Goes Home,” “simply because I was a Negro.” Around the same time, a white woman laughed at him when he crashed his bicycle and crushed his hand. Some years later, he worked for a white man who entertained customers with retellings of lynchings he’d witnessed.
Lomax sought his exit from the region by any means necessary. After graduating from Dasher High School in 1938, he eventually matriculated at Paine College, where he befriended Martin Luther King Jr., in the hopes of being a journalist. But Lomax was impatient, leaving Paine early and moving to Washington DC to begin his professional life in 1943. Two years later, in 1945, he started working as minister of Bethlehem Baptist Church and published his first article in The Baltimore Afro-American covering the Georgia Senate repealing the poll tax, which he supported. “Ministerial work was the family business,” Aiello writes, “but journalism provided a method of performance that allowed him to actively push back against the sins of Valdosta.” Lomax wanted to escape Jim Crow, but he couldn’t stay quiet as it continued.
In June of 1945, Lomax—a skilled speaker and performer—began writing and performing on the WWDC weekly radio program, The Negro Speaks. Despite white outcry about a segment that imagined a world without intolerance, the show was wildly successful and, later that year, was syndicated nationally. Having tasted fame and wanting more, Lomax moved to Chicago in 1948 to work for the Chicago Herald-American, becoming the first Black journalist employed by a Hearst paper. But, as Aiello writes, “the cost of living was higher in Chicago than it had been in Washington or Georgia.” Hoping to make ends meet, in November of 1949, Lomax stole a rental car, forged its registration, and sold it. Shortly thereafter, the police arrested him.
Lomax was incarcerated from 1950 until 1954. After his release, he covered nightlife for Club Chatter magazine, and worked for the Bankers Printing Company and Reliable Insurance Company. Unfulfilled, he returned to DC in 1956 to work for the Associated Negro Press, for which he traveled to Mississippi to cover the region’s response to Emmett Till’s murder. While there, Lomax became director of Public Relations for the Mississippi Council of Negro Leadership, a headquarter for many Black activists in the region. In 1957, Lomax brought his concern for antiblack violence home, when he reported on white people murdering Black teenagers in Chicago for The Baltimore Afro-American. “I damn the fact that words cannot bear the burden of this story,” Lomax wrote in one of his articles. “How is it that men have lived through Dunkirk and Korea while Curtis”—one of the Black teens killed—“died in Chicago?” Aiello’s portrait of Lomax at this time is of a writer who feared Black people’s future in a country where they were killed with abandon, and who hoped to use his voice to change the nation’s trajectory.
In 1957, hoping to reach a larger audience, Lomax moved to New York. There, he covered an assassination attempt on Martin Luther King Jr. for The Baltimore Afro-American and profiled Mike Wallace, the television journalist who became a correspondent for 60 Minutes, for Pageant magazine. Shortly thereafter, Wallace hired Lomax as a writer and interviewer, and Lomax pitched Wallace a profile of Black nationalists, which became the 1959 documentary The Hate that Hate Produced. Though the documentary criticized The Nation of Islam, it introduced the public to Malcolm X, and its extensive profile of The Nation spurred the group’s membership. The separatist beliefs of both also influenced Lomax himself, who began to suspect that older Black political groups like the NAACP were falling behind the times. As he wrote in an essay titled “The Negro Revolt Against ‘The Negro Leaders,’” younger Black organizers were rebelling against “the traditional Negro leadership class” for preaching moderation and followed, instead, “the theology of desegregation.” Unsurprisingly, the piece attracted controversy and critiques from George Schuyler, author of the novel Black No More, and Jackie Robinson. But Lomax was on to something in his insistence that Black political struggles were becoming increasingly confrontational.
Nowhere was this escalation clearer to Lomax than in Africa. In 1960, Life Magazine commissioned Lomax to write about South African apartheid. Hoping to parlay this trip into a larger project, Lomax submitted a book proposal about a transnational network of African revolutionaries to Harper, which granted him a $300 advance. His travels resulted in The Reluctant African, a book both sympathetic to and troubled by African revolutionaries. He worried especially about Africans hoping to “form the government in its own image,” as he put it, because that implied that “Europeans who have been in South Africa longer than Negroes have been in America have, at best, only squatter’s rights.” Though his concerns about Black Americans limited his ability to approach the revolutionaries’ beliefs on their own terms, the book was a hit, acquiring praise from Lorraine Hansberry and selling more than ten thousand copies within its first six months.
Thrust into the limelight, Lomax sought to make the full spectrum of Black political thought available to mainstream audiences. Often, this meant personifying dramatically contradictory positions. On the radio show Open Mike in 1961, he debated Malcolm X, arguing for integration and non-violence. But that same month, Lomax praised Black nationalist thought in the magazine The Urbanite. Later that same year, he took a third position, advocating for the importance of political diversity in a documentary episode about contemporary Black life. At the episode’s beginning, he narrates,
There is no single voice for the American Negro today. Some of us are disillusioned, some of us are frustrated, many are angry. We’re difficult to know, harder to understand. I know, because I am a Negro.
There was, similarly, no single voice for Louis Lomax. He was a chameleon who voiced and aired many strands of Black political thought; as Aiello wrote of the documentary, this effort “gave a legitimate platform to many who previously felt they were merely screaming into the wind.” In the process, his ambition always remained the same: Ending racism in the United States and across the globe.
The prevailing political conditions did, ultimately, push Lomax toward militancy. In 1963, Lomax spoke at a memorial service for the victims of the Birmingham Bombing, in which white nationalists killed four Black young girls. “[T]here is something immoral,” he said in that speech, “about the kind of non-violence that says you can get away with anything against me.” That same year, he published When the Word is Given: A Report on Elijah Muhammad, Malcolm X, and the Black Muslim World, in which he revealed that the FBI had planted a mole in The Nation. In 1964, Malcolm told Lomax that somebody was trying to harm him. Feeling the backlash intensifying, Lomax escalated his rhetoric. In 1964, he traveled to Mississippi to report on the Ku Klux Klan’s murders of three men investigating antiblack violence during the Freedom Summer. Seeing Black people die without defense, and their killers walk free without accountability, Lomax began to consider violence. “If the Negro gets his freedom through non-violence,” Lomax wrote in an article about the murders, “it will be the first time in history it has happened.”
But the allure of Hollywood turned him, once more, into a purveyor of America’s political diversity. In 1965, The Louis Lomax Show debuted, featuring guests as diverse as Civil Rights activist James Farmer, gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson, and UFO investigators. He marketed The Louis Lomax Show as the opposite of the news show of Joe Pyne—the 1960s Rush Limbaugh—but he also courted controversy by debating William F. Buckley and by supporting Cuban Communism. “Controversy, for Lomax, was just another word for publicity,” Aiello writes, and publicity was the show’s ambition: Lomax wanted to be famous globally. In 1966, Lomax tried and failed to travel to North Vietnam to interview Ho Chi Minh; instead, he went to Thailand and interviewed everyone from state officials to the country’s most impoverished, resulting in his 1967 book, Thailand: The War That Is, The War That Will Be. That book decried both the American military presence and Communist organizing in Thailand, while arguing for the right of Thai people to self-determine. Though Lomax’s political positions seemed to oscillate, he remained committed to the idea that people should dictate their own futures, including himself. In November of that year, after the journalist Bill Lane criticized Lomax for being self-centered, Lomax responded, “My only aim is to try to keep [people] interested.”
But interest did not always result in political victories. In 1967, after he was announced as screenwriter for a biopic of Malcolm X, an interviewer asked Lomax about “the ghetto problem.” In response, Lomax proposed increased investment in Black neighborhoods and guaranteed basic income. Later that year, he helped Harry Edwards craft demands for the 1968 Olympic boycott and introduced Edwards to King. And in 1968, Lomax stumped for Eugene McCarthy’s presidential bid. But McCarthy lost the primary, universal basic income never came into being, and King was assassinated, after which Lomax began to argue that the Civil Rights Movement did little for poor Black people, whom violence had pushed to militancy. “[T]he architects of the current black revolution,” Lomax wrote, “are men driven to the brink of madness because their dream did not come true.” Lomax himself would never see those dreams fulfilled. In 1970, at the age of 47, he died in a car crash, leaving behind a legacy that was largely forgotten.
In The Life and Times of Louis Lomax, Aiello portrays Lomax as an essential outlet for Black political thought in the 1950s and 1960s. He was an inadvertent publicist, who introduced Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam to the mainstream. He was a facilitator, whose connections enabled cross-organizational collaborations. And he was a performer, playing the foil in live debates and in print to introduce Americans to the diversity of Black political thought. Amidst calls “for unity,” Aiello writes, Lomax “defended functionally radical positions within the movement, a seemingly contradictory argument made all the more palatable because it contained something that appealed to everyone.” While he may seem to have played a supporting role in midcentury American history, his work was essential to winning the public over to the side of Movement organizers.
Aiello’s attention to journalism, ultimately, serves as a reminder that the media was essential to changing the national opinion about Black opposition to racist laws and practices. As Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff argue in The Race Beat, their history of the press’s involvement in the Civil Rights Movement, northern papers in the 1930s and ’40s rarely covered Jim Crow in the South. In the 1950s and ’60s, reporting on the Movement helped to transform what southern segregationists wanted to frame as a local issue into a national dilemma. Lomax was a part of that transformation. Even if he was forgotten in favor of more famous figures, like King, or contemporaneous white journalists, like Cronkite, his legacy lives on in the gains of the Civil Rights Movement.
But Aiello also makes painstakingly clear that Lomax was a laborer. Throughout The Life and Times of Louis Lomax, Lomax asks for advances on forthcoming books, underpays his taxes, and commits fraud to make a quick buck. “As usual,” Genevieve Young, his editor at Harper, wrote her colleagues in 1962, “Louis Lomax is in need of money.” According to Aiello, Lomax was something of a spendthrift. More importantly, his accounts reveal the financial difficulties of writing. “I don’t think Lomax understands,” one of the accountants at Harper wrote in response to his request for another advance, “that we are set up to make payments just twice a year.” Even if Lomax was particularly financially illiterate, few people—then or now—could easily live on two paychecks a year. In his unwavering attention to Lomax’s financial difficulties, Aiello foregrounds the ways in which writing remains inextricable from the trials and dramas of the workplace.
Black journalists’ struggle to end antiblack racism by reporting the horrors of Jim Crow, ultimately, was a worker’s struggle not only because some publications did not hire Black writers, but also because journalism is work. As Sophia Lee argues in The Workplace Constitution, the Civil Rights Movement was, in part, an effort to build less discriminatory workplaces and better labor conditions. Those workplace advances had the potential to change the lives of workers demonstrating against discriminatory hiring practices at Woolsworth, as well as journalists like Lomax. As a man of many firsts—the first Black person to write and perform dramatic skits over DC airwaves, the first Black journalist hired by a Hearst paper, and the first Black man to host an hour-long syndicated talk show—Lomax must have known well the pain of workplace discrimination and the benefits of increased protections, even for someone in as successful a position as himself.
For all the historical acclaim a journalist may have gained by being their newspaper’s first Black employee or by broadcasting brutality, that praise does little for the person trying to pay their rent. It does not even offer job security. Despite his many achievements, Lomax lost more than one job. But Lomax’s life is not only a reminder of the stark difficulties of media and of the protections writers deserve. It’s also a reminder of the potential of the worker-writer to change the lives of those for and to whom they speak. Without Lomax, Malcolm X and the Nation may have never gained the fame or the reach they acquired in the decade, but because of Lomax, both became household names and paved the way for later Black nationalists. The advances that they and other Black organizers made, ultimately, benefited Lomax as well as Black people more generally.
The expansive potential of writers as workers has been especially clear in the last decade, in which workers in media increasingly turned to labor organizing, be it through traditional means (The New Yorker Union) or non-traditional means (the Freelance Solidarity Project of the National Writers Union). Time and again, writers have claimed the identity of worker to push for better pay and for job security not only for those authors with recognizable names but also for the copy editors, fact-checkers, and interns who make publishing possible. In the process, they worked not only to publish better writing but also to make their workplaces and their cities more hospitable. The same is true of those journalists who covered Bloody Sunday, whose workplace difficulties that day included the trauma of witnessing the state assault its citizens and, in some cases, the scars of surviving violence themselves. The workplace that they wanted to better technically resided in buildings housing their respective publications, but that day, their cubicle was the world.