Louis Emanuel Lomax was an ex-con, a former prisoner in Illinois’ Joliet Correctional Center convicted for a confidence scheme selling rented automobiles to used car dealers. He also had uncontested domestic abuse claims on his record. He had two DUIs. Four divorces. He lied publicly about his collegiate education on a regular basis. He was constantly in search of fame and media attention and thus cozied up to popular leaders on the fringes of both sides of the political spectrum and changed his position on key social issues when it suited his interest or audience.
He criticized every major civil rights leader, engaged in hopeless assassination conspiracy theories, and took advantage of violent conflicts both domestic and international to draw attention to himself. During a speech in 1963, he told his audience that they needed to develop “the art of deliberate disunity,” criticizing “the state of Negro euphoria, that seizure of silly happiness and emotional release that comes in the wake of a partial civil rights victory.”
Louis Emanuel Lomax rose from a childhood in the deepest of the Deep South, Valdosta, Georgia, to become one of the most successful black journalists of the twentieth century. He was the man who introduced Malcolm X to the nation, remaining a close ally of both Malcolm and Martin Luther King for the duration of their lives. He helped organize the 1968 Olympic boycott and was there with Harry Edwards at the event’s initial press conference. He was in the nation’s capital for the success of the March on Washington and for the confusion of Resurrection City. He was the opening act for Malcolm X’s “The Ballot or the Bullet” speech and was on the telephone with Betty Shabazz the night he was killed.
Lomax was the first black man with a syndicated television talk show and an author of several best-selling and influential books, both a driver and a popularizer of virtually every element of the civil rights movement from the late 1950s to the late 1960s. During a speech in 1963, he told his audience that they needed to develop “the art of deliberate disunity,” emphasizing that “only through diversity of opinion can we establish the basic prerequisite for the democratic process.”
It was the enigma of Lomax that drove me to him, that convinced me to write a forthcoming biography of the journalist titled The Art of Deliberate Disunity. It was also the fact that Lomax was from the town where I live, Valdosta, Georgia. His shadow, and that of his family, looms over the neighborhoods surrounding my university. There are streets here and schools named for members of his family.
I have written about the civil rights movement and twentieth century black history at length, and that part of Lomax’s life portended no real problems. But Lomax’s journalism also took him overseas, writing about and advocating for communities in the Global South. Those were subjects I had never researched, the ones that seemed most intimidating, but also the most challenging and interesting. It was the kind of work that our discipline encourages us to undertake, to reach beyond our comfortable spaces, to use our particular expertise as a lens to generate new expertise. It was that discomfort that led me to publish “The Reluctant African: The Foreign Policy Journalism of Louis Lomax, 1960-1968” in the winter 2019 edition of Journalism History.
To help that process of generation and, more pragmatically, to study Lomax’s foreign policy journalism, I had to venture far afield from south Georgia. Lomax lived a life that took him all over the world. He lived in New York and California for most of his adult life. He died in a single car accident on a lonely New Mexico road in 1970 while investigating the Martin Luther King assassination. Without one real location that could definitively be called home, his wife at the time of his death decided to donate his papers to the University of Nevada. Thus it was that to truly learn about the coverage of Africa and Thailand by a journalist from Georgia, I had to travel to Reno. I spent a week in late December at the university’s archives, collecting all there was to collect on Lomax before walking back to my hotel room each night in freezing temperatures that were decidedly different from those in Valdosta.
Lomax had a keen sense of his own place in history, of his own desire to be part of history, and therefore was a good collector of his records. His correspondence about his books and articles survived, as did his research notebooks, and of course the final products of his reporting. Studying that work in the context of his civil rights advocacy at home and his tendency toward self promotion provided an opportunity to apply the kinds of historiographies with which I was already familiar to a research subject that I wasn’t. With that contextual material already in place, I then folded in new historiographies on the Africa of the 1960s emerging from colonialism, on the Thailand dealing with a communist uprising and the Vietnam conflict nearby.
The process of writing “The Reluctant African: The Foreign Policy Journalism of Louis Lomax, 1960-1968,” then, was a demonstration that as historians our seemingly tangential knowledge can be marshalled as contextual material for new projects outside the bounds of our comfort zones, extending the thread of our known historiographies and opening up new possibilities for our research. In his book, The Reluctant African, Lomax discussed a similar emergence, that of a black man experiencing Africa as both an outsider and an inherent insider at the same time. Such is the same experience that we as historians can have when we use those historiographies for which we are insiders to venture into informational spaces where were are outsiders. We can all be Reluctant Africans.
Thus it is that Thomas Aiello is a historian of African American cultural and social history who rarely ventures beyond the bounds of the United States. His book, The Grapevine of the Black South: The Scott Newspaper Syndicate in the Generation Before the Civil Rights Movement (University of Georgia Press, 2018) chronicled black press journalism in the South and won the 2019 American Journalism Historians Association book award.
Thomas Aiello is a historian of African American cultural and social history whose research brought him to the history of black foreign policy journalism in the tumultuous decade of the 1960s. His article, “The Reluctant African: The Foreign Policy Journalism of Louis Lomax, 1960-1968” was published in the winter 2019 issue of Journalism History and chronicled the efforts of journalist Louis Lomax to tell the story of emerging postcolonial Africa and an Indo-Chinese region tormented by a very present colonialism. He ventured outside the comfort zone of his historiographical norms to demonstrate Lomax’s particular “art of deliberate disunity,” and he is at least moderately confident that his work is better for the experience.