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This photo of MLK and Richard Nixon was once taboo. Now, see it in Tampa.

A famed photographer captured Martin Luther King Jr. and Nixon in a conversation that was incendiary at the time.
Photographer Griff Davis captured the first meeting of Vice President Richard Nixon and Martin Luther King, Jr. and their wives, Patricia Nixon and Coretta Scott King, on Independence Day in Accra, Ghana on March 7, 1957. [Courtesy of Griffith J. Davis Photographs & Archives]
Photographer Griff Davis captured the first meeting of Vice President Richard Nixon and Martin Luther King, Jr. and their wives, Patricia Nixon and Coretta Scott King, on Independence Day in Accra, Ghana on March 7, 1957. [Courtesy of Griffith J. Davis Photographs & Archives]

Griffith J. Davis saw the historic moment happen and clicked his camera.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., emerging civil rights leader fresh off the Montgomery bus boycotts, was talking to then Vice President Richard Nixon. They were flanked by their wives, Coretta Scott King and Patricia Nixon.

It was March 1957. Newly independent Ghana was celebrating with ceremonies in its capital, Accra. Nixon was there leading the official U.S. delegation. Ghana’s Prime Minister Kwame Nkrumah invited the Kings.

Davis, an African American audiovisual officer for the U.S. Foreign Service stationed in Africa, had been sent to document Nixon’s first visit to the continent.

During their talk, Nixon invited King to Washington, D.C., to discuss the civil rights movement. But fears ran high that the image could increase the tension of race relations.

“This meeting would have been too volatile to have taken place in the United States,” according to the U.S. Department of State’s website, ShareAmerica. “And the photo was not published there at the time.”

“Griff Davis and Langston Hughes: Letters and Photographs 1947-1967: A Global Friendship." On view through April 19. $10, $8 students, seniors and military. 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-7 p.m. Friday, noon-5 p.m. Saturday-Sunday. Florida Museum of Photographic Arts, 400 N Ashley Drive, Tampa. (813) 221-2222. fmopa.org.

A self portrait of Griff Davis with Langston Hughes and Ebony magazine by Griff Davis ©. On display in the "Griff Davis and Langston Hughes, letters and Photographs 1947-1967: A Global Friendship" exhibition at the Florida Museum of Photographic Arts from Jan. 17-April 19, 2020. [Courtesy of Griffith J. Davis Photographs & Archives]

The exhibit was curated by the museum and produced by Davis’ daughter, Dorothy Davis, founder of the Griffith J. Davis Photographs and Archives. Since her father’s death in 1993, Davis has held the archives of some 55,000 images. The exhibit also includes archives from Clark Atlanta, Duke and Yale universities.

After visiting Tampa Bay for 20 years, Dorothy Davis now splits her time between New York and St. Petersburg, where she is a member of the program committee of the St. Petersburg Conference on World Affairs. She’s also a board member of Tampa Bay Businesses and Culture for the Arts. She credits the contacts she’s made here as contributing to the exhibition’s fruition.

“I was struck by the creative energy that exists here in abundance and touched by how my father’s work has been embraced and respected," she said.

Photographer Griff Davis captured the first meeting of Vice President Richard Nixon and Martin Luther King, Jr. and their wives, Patricia Nixon and Coretta Scott King in 1957. [OCTAVIO JONES | Times]

Even though the image of Nixon and King is a separate theme from the exhibition, she said, showing it was a great opportunity to commemorate King’s birthday.

King and Davis had a personal history. They knew each other as boys in Atlanta and both attended Morehouse College. After King was assassinated in 1968, Davis, stationed in Lagos, Nigeria, gave a memorial speech about the reverend.

Davis was a trailblazer in his own right. The photojournalist was the first roving editor for Ebony magazine and one of the few African American U.S. Foreign Service officers, becoming the first audiovisual officer posted to the U.S. Embassy in Liberia, Africa.

But the focus of the exhibition is the friendship Davis had with another leading figure in the struggle for equality, Langston Hughes. Through 62 never-before-seen photographs and pieces of correspondence, the exhibition chronicles the relationship between Davis and the writer, a leader of the Harlem Renaissance.

Davis was Hughes’ English student at what was then called Atlanta University. Hughes appreciated his drive as a journalist. Davis rented a room in Hughes’ house in Harlem during graduate school at Columbia University, where he became the only African American in the school of journalism’s class of 1949. It was Hughes who suggested Davis to Ebony editor John Johnson.

Davis was on the front lines of Africa’s Independence Movement, suggesting stories and capturing images that were great fodder for Ebony magazine. He and Hughes wrote letters back and forth while he was stationed there, with Davis sending recommendations of African writers.

A 1965 essay Hughes wrote for Ebony’s 20th anniversary is included in the exhibit to give a picture of the climate in those days. Davis and Hughes remained friends until Hughes’ death in 1967.

The moment captured in the photo of King and Nixon had a ripple effect. King visited Nixon just three months later to discuss the 1957 Civil Rights Bill, which Nixon was spearheading. But two parts of the bill were shut down: the authority of the government to enforce school desegregation and prosecute voting violations.

King was disappointed, but wrote Nixon a letter saying it was better than no bill at all and that he was optimistic about the future. Their relationship remained positive and King even supported Nixon’s 1960 bid for presidency.

That soured after King was arrested for violating probation stemming from a sit-in and spent four months in jail. Coretta Scott King received a phone call of sympathy from Nixon’s opponent, John F. Kennedy.

Nixon never offered any support. Kennedy won the election.

IF YOU GO

“Griff Davis and Langston Hughes: Letters and Photographs 1947-1967: A Global Friendship." On view through April 19. $10, $8 students, seniors and military. 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-7 p.m. Friday, noon-5 p.m. Saturday-Sunday. Florida Museum of Photographic Arts, 400 N Ashley Drive, Tampa. (813) 221-2222. fmopa.org.

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