On the Life and Legacy of Black Journalist Louis Lomax (Review)Historians in the News
tags: African American history, book reviews, journalism, Louis Lomax
We still have far too few histories of Black journalists. Even as biographers have written on Alex Haley, Ethel Payne, Louis Austin, Emory O. Jackson, and Lerone Bennett in the last decade, many other Black reporters and editors still deserve their own studies.
Thomas Aiello’s new work, The Life & Times of Louis Lomax: the Art of Deliberate Disunity, is the newest addition to this literature. A historian at Valdosta State University, Aiello is an impressively productive writer, the author of no fewer than twelve books in the last thirteen years. This is his second work on Black journalists, his first being a history of the Atlanta World network.
In the decades following World War II, Louis Lomax was one of the leading commentators on Black life in the United States, the author of five books and countless stories, and the host of his own syndicated television talk show. By the time he died in 1970, Lomax was a nationally recognized expert on Black politics. Presidential candidates called on him for endorsements and universities hired him to teach.
At times, Lomax’s work was marked more by provocation than principle, more by sensationalism than substance. Proximity to fame and the pursuit of the next advance were constant motivators, especially when he faced money issues.
The pursuit of career accomplishments, more than any particular ideology, seems to have grounded Lomax’s life. It would be an understatement to describe Lomax’s views as flexible. His stances on politics depended more on who he was in the room with—and who he might immediately disagree with. Indeed, Aiello’s subtitle, The Art of Deliberate Disunity, refers to an August 1963 speech from Lomax days before the March on Washington where he lambasted “Negro euphoria, that seizure of silly happiness and emotional release that comes in the wake of a partial civil rights victory” (1). If anything, Lomax made a name for himself as a contrarian, someone who chastised nationally prominent civil rights organizations for being too cautious while criticizing more radical Black groups for being reckless.
Nowhere were Lomax’s ideological contradictions more evident than in his relationship with the Nation of Islam. Lomax’s work with Mike Wallace on The Hate That Hate Produced, a CBS television documentary on the NOI, catapulted him to national prominence in 1959. Nothing less than a hatchet job, the breathless exposé made Lomax a known name to journalists across the country. Yet even as it smeared the NOI as something akin to a Black supremacist terrorist organization, it also gained it thousands of new recruits. Lomax may have helped a white journalist condemn the NOI on national television, but the documentary’s positive impact on the group’s membership rolls kept him in the good graces of both Muhammad and Malcolm X.
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