Q&A with Thomas Aiello, Author of The Life and Times of Louis Lomax

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Thomas Aiello is Associate Professor of History at Valdosta State University and the author of many books, including Jim Crow’s Last Stand and The Grapevine of the Black South. His new book is The Life and Times of Louis Lomax: The Art of Deliberate Disunity, which traces the complicated and fascinating life of pioneering journalist, television host, bestselling author, and important yet overlooked civil rights figure Louis Lomax, who became one of the most influential voices of the civil rights movement despite his past as an ex-con, serial liar, and publicity-seeking provocateur. 

David L. Chappell has called your book a “thrilling adventure story,” in addition to a “great intellectual biography.” How do you merge these two genres? That is, how do you work to craft a biography that is stylistically enjoyable for the reader?

It certainly helps to have a subject who lived an interesting life. Louis Lomax was a public intellectual, but also a media personality hungry for fame, a criminal, a crusading advocate for civil rights, and someone who lied consistently about his past. His life was itself an adventure, making telling an enjoyable story about it far easier. It is rare that a public intellectual like Lomax would become involved in the kinds of pursuits in which he was engaged. The most interesting part of his story is not evaluating his ideas, though the book certainly does that, but in figuring out why he thought what he thought and did what he did. It is ultimately that “why” question that combines the adventure story with the intellectual biography. Lomax’s thought and his strategy for relaying it to the public was shaped by his experience of growing up in the Jim Crow South, of lying about his college career, of his conviction for car theft and fraud, of his hustling journalism efforts, and of his desire for the limelight. Melding those stories with the ideas such experiences created is what merges the genres and makes the story enjoyable.

Why has Lomax been left out of the civil rights narrative of the 1960s? What are the stakes of incorporating him into that narrative?

Lomax has largely been given short shrift in discussions of civil rights because most of the era’s well-known figures staked out a position and defended it in the public sphere. Lomax’s position, however, was in a constant state of flux, making it difficult to pin down where he stood on various issues at various times without a full-length study like this one. Also, he was never part of a specific rights organization. He was a media personality that sometimes worked behind the scenes to help various causes and at other times worked to publicize them through his writing and his television and radio program.

When he does appear in civil rights narratives, then, he does so tangentially, because without a full understanding of his life, his influence, and his changing positions, it is difficult for most civil rights historians to pin down exactly where he fits. Hopefully this book can change that. Hopefully it demonstrates how important Lomax was to the trajectory of the movement. The stakes of that addition are significant because civil rights groups, whether the Nation of Islam, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, or any other group in between them on the ideological spectrum, could have no substantial influence without the media. Lomax’s access to public platforms gave him the ability to publicize messages he cared about, to give louder voice to those he deemed worthy. In the process, he served as a (sometimes unreliable) gatekeeper for the messages of civil rights advocacy. Both as a thinker who helped develop the messages presented by advocates and as a vehicle to popularize those messages, Lomax was vital to the development of civil rights in the 1960s.

Can you summarize “the art of deliberate disunity,” as Lomax preached it? What might it have to offer our current political moment?

“The art of deliberate disunity” is a phrase coined by Lomax in a 1963 speech. He made the case that “only through diversity of opinion can we establish the basic prerequisite for the democratic process.” He criticized the idea that all civil rights victories were made equal, and that there was one right answer to the problem of Black equality in the United States. He saw as healthy the differences of opinion between, for example, his friends Malcolm X and Martin Luther King. Such disputes spurred innovation, which only benefited the movement writ large. If civil rights advocates only thought in a bifurcated way about “what we think” and about “what white people think,” the diversity of Black thought  would get reduced to a lowest common denominator. By cultivating good faith debates among Black leaders, the art of deliberate disunity better respected the variety of Black opinions and demonstrated a version of democracy among a group seeking democracy from those in power. If we force everyone into a monolithic way of thinking, he argued, we are no better than white leaders.

It is an idea that does potentially have something to offer our current political moment, wherein warring factions are divided into separate camps, never the twain shall meet. Lomax, were he still around, would argue that the bigotry of the right and the push for ideological orthodoxy on the left create similar problems. The modern civil rights movement, Lomax would argue, needs to foster more internal debates about strategy and about goals. Such is not a weakness, but a democratic benefit that serves as a driver of creative growth.

In your account, Lomax has made a lasting impact both in terms of his contributions to Black journalism and his resistance against global colonialism. How exactly have these two projects benefitted from his influence, and how could they continue to benefit from readers’ increased knowledge of his life?

Lomax was able to move his journalism from his early work with the Black press to a more mainstream profile, publishing with white newspapers and publishers, becoming the first Black host of a news/talk television program, and developing a series of radio shows. His influence in that realm is vital, as so many mainstream journalists, television and radio hosts all benefit from his pioneering work. His success on The Louis Lomax Show, for example, was the country’s first demonstration that a news/talk program hosted by a Black man could be financially viable, removing that potential stigma and opening up that space to more journalists of color.

A similar claim could be made about his anticolonialism advocacy. While Lomax was in no way the first leader to argue against Western hegemony on the global stage, his popular comparisons between colonialism abroad and civil rights abuses at home brought such concerns to a popular audience. Much commentary in that regard came from the far Left, from voices that mainstream (and predominantly white) audiences never heard. But Lomax’s voice was able to make that case to a wider audience. Many others made similar arguments in the years after Lomax’s death, and of course colonialism has not disappeared, but Lomax’s advocacy was the first mainstream comparison of foreign colonialism and domestic racism and among the first public expressions of concern about the tumultuous situations in Africa and Thailand, places often forgotten by American audiences obsessed with Vietnam.

Lomax, as you describe him, is a complicated figure. He was a trailblazing newsman with a sharp political mind; at the same time, he loved to be the center of media attention, and was accused of womanizing and spousal abuse. Is there a Lomax figure living today who matches this combination of laudable attributes and personal flaws?

There is certainly no one today with the same basic profile as Lomax. The background check process would simply eliminate him from consideration for those kinds of jobs. There are, however, many with profiles that retain elements of Lomax’s trailblazing career. The Breakfast Club, for example, have been able to maintain a popular, mainstream radio program that relates news and serves as a hub of racial advocacy. Charlamagne tha God, Angela Yee, and DJ Envy have been able to find a space in the media landscape where they are both media reporters and media creators, chroniclers of advocacy and advocates themselves. On the other side of the political spectrum, pseudo-journalists like Geraldo Rivera, Sean Hannity, or Rush Limbaugh have used entertainment platforms to help guide policy and governing theory for their own side, usually in the cause of the very bigotry that people like Lomax sought to eliminate. Then there are broadcasters like Brian Williams, who was caught lying about a variety of stories,  but has been able to make a comeback and continue his career despite that scandal. These are approximations, of course. Lomax’s profile simply could not exist today. His infidelity is probably still very common among news reporters and political theorists, but spousal abuse, lying about academic credentials, and his largely hidden prison record are not the kinds of things that could be covered in modern society.

Religion seems to have played a significant role in Lomax’s life and work. He was the son of a Christian preacher, a friend of Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam and accused by some of antisemitism. What can we learn from this confluence of religious affiliation and political movements?

Lomax saw religion as a means to an end. His upbringing was one of strict religious zeal, raised by preachers in the deepest of the Deep South. But his stories about his childhood emphasize religion’s value to people’s lives rather than its inherent truth. The same could be said about his feelings toward the Nation of Islam. He saw the group’s power not in its religious principles but in its political messaging. The religion itself was simply a vehicle for its larger aims, and when that religion got in the way, as when Malcolm X and Elijah Muhammad had a falling out, it was ultimately expendable. His supposed antisemitism, too, was less the result of any disagreement with Judaic thinking or belief. It was instead rooted in politics, a concern about the role of high finance in the plight of Black impoverishment. Thus it was that religion was invariably important to Lomax. It was always present in his life. He himself experimented with preaching for a time after he moved to Washington, DC. At the same time, however, religion was a pragmatic presence, there to be marshalled when necessary to make various arguments and influence the proper people.

That confluence of religious affiliation and political movements is also common today. While there are several leaders today whose faith is at the heart of their activism (Reverend William Barber seems to be the most high-profile example), the vast majority of people use their opinions about religion to justify their political beliefs, not the other way around. Lomax wasn’t necessarily allowing his politics to direct his faith, but he was using that faith to selectively influence those to whom he wanted to speak. And he supported that strategy in others like the Nation of Islam.

Read the introduction to The Life and Times of Louis Lomax and save 30% on the paperback with coupon E21AELLO.

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