"How odd is it that communism doesn't frighten me," African-American journalist Louis Lomax muses in this 1964 Book and Author Luncheon. Instead, he tells the audience, "You do!" Ostensibly here to publicize his new book on Black Muslims, When the Word is Given, Lomax seizes the opportunity to address a white, middle class, largely female audience and give a concise picture of what is going through the mind of a contemporary black man. Rather than communist infiltration of the American way of life, as was warned of by the previous speaker, spy novelist Helen MacInnes, Lomax's fear is "that your husband will call my son a nigger and not give him a job." He fears he will finally be able to buy a house in a good neighborhood only to see "you," his white neighbors, panic and flee, sending the surrounding community into decline. He recalls his childhood in Georgia, where segregation was "a fact of life," and then an amusing boyhood encounter playing marbles with a younger "stupid child" who turned out to be Martin Luther King! But the point of his reminiscences is to emphasize that "the world that was once is no more" and that ladies of privilege such as those seated before him now are faced with a choice, "to wish it were not so…or to take a personal Freedom Ride." After he sits, there is unusually sustained applause and what sounds like a standing ovation. Lomax's challenge, particularly his pointed inclusion of women as a group suffering from discrimination, sounds remarkably prescient for 1964….or today.
Louis Lomax (1922-1970) was a journalist and author best remembered today for an early interview with Malcolm X and for first coming to his colleague Mike Wallace with the idea of filming a TV special about the Nation of Islam which became The Hate That Hate Produced. Lomax occupied a middle ground in the Civil Rights landscape of the time, both explaining and provoking. The website Black Past notes how:
By 1964, Lomax became one of the first black television journalists to host a 90-minute twice-a-week interview format television show. The Louis E. Lomax Show ran on KTTV in Los Angeles from 1964 to 1968. He interviewed guests on his television program about controversial topics like the Black Panthers and the Nation of Islam, the women's movement, and the war in Vietnam. He analyzed the black power movement from a vantage point rarely shared by commentators at the time. He also questioned the moderate approach taken by the leadership of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and he defended the rebellious young African Americans who had embraced black power. Despite that stance, he also encouraged whites and blacks to come together, maintaining that race problems were aggravated because people know little about each other. Given his unusual positions, Lomax encountered criticism from all sides.
Lomax's The Negro Revolt (1962) performed a similar service. Kirkus Reviews makes it sound like a primer for white Americans interested in the race problem:
Beginning with the seamstress who refused to move back to make room for white people in a bus in Montgomery, in 1955, he traces the growth of Negro protest. He also gives us a succinct picture of the history of slavery in this country, and how the freedoms gained by the Negro after the Civil War were quickly, often brutally curtailed. There are things in this book---things like stories of police brutality, liberal hypocrisy, and the chronic failure of Americans to face the cruelty of Negro discrimination---which can only make the reader angry and, if he is white, ashamed. But there are close-ups too of men like Martin Luther King, of organizations like the NAACP or CORE, of activities like sit-ins and freedom rides, which also give one some idea of what people are trying to do to fight segregation. A chilling alternative too is seen in the Black Muslim movement, in Malcolm X and other extremists, who would deny the white man and withdraw to a world of their own. Lomax' interview with X is, in fact, one of the best things in a sane and useful book. An appendix gives interesting statistics on the Negro's economic and social position in the United States today---statistics which give the lie to what many false optimists tell us is the Negro's "better" lot in life.
Lomax was working on a three volume History of Black Americans when he died in an automobile crash at the age of forty-seven. Rumors persist that because of his investigation into the death of Malcolm X he was a target of assassination. There is indeed an extensive file on Lomax kept by the FBI but no evidence has been uncovered to bolster these claims. Lomax did write, in the book he was promoting at this appearance (as quoted by the website Questia.com):
I know white people are frightened by Malcolm X and Elijah Muhammad; maybe now they will understand how I have felt all my life, for there has never been a day when I was unafraid; we Negroes live our lives on the edge of fear, not knowing when or how the serpent of discrimination will strike and deprive us of something dear--a job here, a house there, an evening out over there, or a life itself.
Audio courtesy of the NYC Municipal Archives WNYC Collection.
WNYC archives id: 150523
Municipal archives id: RT159