Sixty-Five Years of Covering the News
Pioneering black journalist Simeon Booker Jr. will soon be inducted into NABJ’s Hall of Fame. And his book about his remarkable career comes out in April. Mon., November 26, 2012.
By Amber Larkins
Amber Larkins (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a graduate student at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland.
Carol McCabe Booker spent three years writing in the upstairs of her Capitol Hill home. Periodically she would take sections or chapters downstairs for her husband of 40 years, Simeon Booker Jr., 94, to review and flesh out.
"One of the nice things about how it went is he never would say, 'This is terrible' or 'Are you kidding?' " she says.
He usually told her that she was getting there, and she would take the material back upstairs to work on it some more. Or he'd tell her it was great, which usually meant it was time to head back upstairs to start on the next section.
"Carol finished the book for me," Booker says.
Booker's book, "Shocking the Conscience: A Reporter's Account of the Civil Rights Movement," will be available from the University Press of Mississippi in April. It is a history of Booker's 65-year journalism career, which explains how blacks went from being completely ignored in the mainstream press to being the focus of heavy coverage of the civil rights movement, and the role of Booker's civil rights reporting in Jet magazine.
Booker, a humble man with thick glasses, covered many major events during his long career, including many epochal civil rights moments, including the desegregation of Little Rock's Central High School, and the administrations of 10 presidents.
"As one of the nation's leading black writers, he never seemed terribly impressed with the important role he was playing in journalistic history," says Moses Newson, who worked as a reporter for the Afro-American newspapers and covered many of the same events.
In January, Booker's legacy will be recognized by the National Association of Black Journalists , when he will be inducted into its Hall of Fame.
Booker was born in Baltimore but raised in Youngstown, Ohio. His uncle was friends with Carl Murphy, the publisher of the Afro-American daily newspapers, who inspired Booker to become a journalist. After Booker graduated from Virginia Union University, he began working for the Afro-American in Baltimore, but he was dissatisfied.
"The papers were so alike that I wanted to move on from there," Booker says.
Booker returned to Ohio and worked for Cleveland's Call and Post, a black weekly, where he won the Newspaper Guild Award for reporting on the city's slum housing. He also won the Wendell L. Willkie Award for a series on ghetto schools.
In 1950, he finally became a Nieman Fellow at Harvard University after two unsuccessful applications. When his year as a fellow ended, Booker decided it was time for a job change.
"I wanted to work on a daily newspaper," he recalls, "There weren't many blacks working on daily newspapers."
He wrote a letter to the publisher of the Washington Post, asking for a chance to become a reporter. He was told to come to Washington and that he'd be hired as soon as there was an opening. Booker became the Post's first black reporter a few months later.
Booker says his greatest strength as a journalist was his persistence. "I think it was my desire to be a journalist, a reporter, that made me always want to do a better job than the next guy," he says.
Booker encountered segregation and racism at the Post. He couldn't eat at restaurants near the Post's building, and his colleagues were not as friendly as he had expected, he says.
"I was always under a lot of pressure," Booker adds.
He set a goal of getting a banner headline at the Post, and as soon as he did, he left the paper to join Jet magazine. He moved to Chicago, where he would become involved in the civil rights movement. "I started covering the worst kind of murder, that no one was covering, and gave it some attention," Booker says.
Eventually, he turned his attention southward. Booker would carry a Bible with him when he traveled in the South, pretending he was a poor preacher to protect himself from angry whites. But he didn't realize how dangerous the South was until he first traveled to Mississippi to cover a voting rights rally in April 1955.
Some 15,000 black men, women and children from three states gathered around a huge tent in Mound Bayou to hear speeches from people like Rev. George Washington Lee, who was engaged in helping blacks register to vote. Shortly thereafter, on May 7, 1955, Lee was shot to death while driving his car in Belzoni, Mississippi.
"This man – Lee – his murder was not reported in any white newspaper. The black press of Mississippi and Alabama, Chicago – they covered it, but not the white press," Carol Booker says.
Booker attended Lee's funeral, wrote the story and vowed Jet's coverage of any similar crimes in the future would be hard for the white press to ignore.
In August of that year in Mississippi, 14-year-old Emmett Till was kidnapped, brutally beaten, murdered and thrown in the Tallahatchie River. Till supposedly had whistled at a white woman, precipitating the brutal attack.
Booker covered Till's funeral in Chicago, where the boy's mother, Mamie Till Bradley, lived. Bradley insisted on an open casket funeral so the world could see what had been done to her son.
Photographer David Jackson took pictures of the corpse's horribly swollen and mutilated face. "That picture in Jet magazine remained in the minds of teenage blacks," Carol Booker says. She says these young people were to inject vital new energy into the civil rights movement.
Booker covered the Emmett Till trial in Mississippi. A hundred white journalists also covered the trial. The black press and black Rep. Charles Diggs Jr.,were forced into a corner where they could barely hear the proceedings. The jury declared J.W. Milam and Roy Bryant not guilty of murder because there was no proof the body was Till's.
"After that black events started being covered more, but you still could get the straight story from Jet," Carol Booker says.
Booker has been considered an icon of black journalism and the civil rights movement, in part because his work was so widely read in the black community. "Jet was in the barbershop, in the bars, in salons," Carol Booker says. "It was in the black doctors' offices and black dentists' [offices]. There were subscriptions to private homes."
Jet, a pocket-sized weekly magazine, was considered the bible of things of interest to African Americans. It covered every aspect of the civil rights movement and also debunked false rumors, encouraging readers to look into things rather than taking them at face value.
"If it wasn't in Jet, it didn't happen," Carol Booker says.
Booker became the magazine's Washington bureau chief in 1955. He wrote a weekly column called Ticker Tape, which included possible employment opportunities for blacks and gave credit to blacks who were achieving important things. He gave national exposure to those who wouldn't make it into a national magazine because of their race.
"Covering the black freedom movement was more than a job for Simeon," his wife says. "It was even more than a mission. It was his life."
Booker went with the Freedom Riders when they set out on a bus from Washington to travel through the South. They ran into trouble when they reached Birmingham. Booker learned that a bus an hour ahead of them, on which Newson of the Afro-American was traveling, had been set on fire. Then the Freedom Riders were attacked by the Ku Klux Klan.
Booker cut a hole in a newspaper, pretending to read it as he observed the violent mob.
"Sometimes [Booker] struck me as an intellectual professor who might be moonlighting as a fearless, crackerjack newsman blessed with a profound talent at sizing up people and situations," Newson says.
This particular situation was dangerous indeed. "There was no way they were going to get out alive without help," Carol Booker says. Booker called Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy and the Freedom Riders were rescued.
"He had terrible experiences like freedom riding, but as a journalist, you can't let it terrify you." Carol Booker says. "You have to suppress certain things like feelings and emotions."
Booker, known as the dean of the black press corps in Washington, has received many honors, including the National Press Club's Fourth Estate Award in 1982. He also has mentored many young black journalists.
One of them was Roy Betts, who met Booker in 1977 through a mutual friend when he was getting ready to graduate from Howard University. He met with Booker to ask his advice on where he should look for a job.
"I couldn't believe how much time he gave this fresh-out-of-college, wet-behind-the-ears budding young journalist," Betts says. Two weeks later, Betts was hired to work in Johnson Publishing Co.'s Washington bureau for Jet and Ebony magazines.
Betts describes Booker as a quiet, very studious man who listened and observed. But when it was time to ask a question or pursue an angle, he knew exactly which buttons to push.
Carolyn DuBose was another young journalist mentored by Booker. Dubose recalls interviewing the daughter of Booker T. Washington for Ebony, and finding the woman in poverty. She was reluctant to write the story because it might embarrass Portia Washington Pittman, but Booker told her to write the piece.
"Booker believed that people would be moved by her plight, and he was right," Dubose says. "By going public with her living conditions, it altered her whole life."
The Johnson Publishing Co. bureau became an after-work hangout, where people would gather to talk and play penny poker, Betts recalls. "The building at 1750 Pennsylvania Avenue was a lively location filled with top members of the media gathering news of the time," Dubose says.
The building was also well-known for its popular Christmas parties, which were organized and thrown by Booker. Richette Haywood, who worked for Booker as an assistant editor in the late 1980s, remembers him calling it a party with a purpose. "Only Mr. Booker could have persuaded both the Republican National Committee Chair Lee Atwater and the Democratic National Committee Chair Ron Brown to attend our party, accept a dual award and actually stay and enjoy the evening together," Haywood says.
Booker retired from Jet in 2007, when he was 88 years old.
"Retiring after all those years, writing the book for him was a great way not only to feel he was doing something useful, but to leave a legacy..a compact representation of what he had covered in 65 years, and what it meant," Carol Booker says.
Booker emphasizes that journalists should know what they want to cover when they embark on their careers.
"I jumped and wasted a lot of time figuring out what I was interested in in the beginning," he says, "But once you get situated, then you can move."