Simeon Booker, who for 50 years was Washington bureau chief for Jet and Ebony magazines and at age 99 the dean of black journalists, died Sunday at an assisted-living community in Solomons, Md. He had recently been hospitalized for pneumonia, said his wife, Carol McCabe Booker, Emily Langer reported for the Washington Post.
“Few reporters risked more to chronicle the civil rights movement than Booker,” Langer wrote. “He was the first full-time black reporter for The Washington Post, serving on the newspaper’s staff for two years before joining the Johnson Publishing Co. to write for Jet, a weekly, and Ebony, a monthly modeled on Life magazine, in 1954.
“From home bases in Chicago and later in Washington, Booker ventured into the South and sent back dispatches that reached black readers across the United States. . . .”
Booker was in Chicago, hometown of 14-year-old Emmett Till, when he heard that the young man had disappeared while visiting relatives in Money, Miss.
“Booker instinctively went to the home of the young man’s mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, and earned her trust as she moved through her terror and then grief. He was with her at the funeral home where, over the objections of everyone present, she insisted that the casket bearing her son’s mutilated corpse be opened. . . .”
For many African Americans, news did not happen if it did not appear in Jet, but Booker’s reporting and the shocking photographs took the Till story beyond Jet’s readership base.
“ ‘Her face wet with tears, she leaned over the body, just removed from a rubber bag in a Chicago funeral home, and cried out, “Darling, you have not died in vain. Your life has been sacrificed for something.” ‘
“A Jet photographer, David Jackson, photographed Till’s body, which thousands of mourners observed at his funeral. No mainstream news outlets published the images of Till’s body, according to an account decades later in the New York Times. But their appearance in Jet and several other African-American publications helped make the Till murder ‘the first great media event of the civil rights movement,’ historian David Halberstam wrote in his book ‘The Fifties.’
“Like Till, Booker grew up in the North and said he had never entered the Deep South before traveling to Mississippi to cover the trial of Till’s accused killers, Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam.
“An all-white jury acquitted the defendants after deliberations lasting roughly an hour. Later, Bryant and Milam confessed to the killing in a paid interview with Look magazine.
“Mr. Booker was in constant peril as a black journalist reporting in the South. But the Till case presented particular dangers.
“ ‘The first day we got there we went over to Till’s grand-uncle’s house and men in a car with guns forced us to stop,’ Mr. Booker told the Times. After the verdict, he recalled, ‘the first thing we had to think about was getting to Memphis and getting out of there, because we were marked men. And they put us all on one plane, the reporters and witnesses and everybody.’
“Booker later became bureau chief in Washington and established the Johnson company’s office in the capital. After a lengthy search for accommodations in the then-segregated city, Booker and his colleagues found two rooms in the Standard Oil building on Constitution Avenue.
“As one of the few black reporters in Washington, he wrote a column for Jet called Ticker Tape U.S.A. and led editorial coverage of the executive and legislative branches at a time when black reporters were largely excluded from news events as from everyday life. He covered 10 presidents and traveled to Southeast Asia to report on the Vietnam War.
“And he returned to the South, documenting the civil rights struggle. For his safety, he sometimes posed as a minister, carrying a Bible under his arm. Other times, he discarded his usual suit and bow tie . . . for overalls to look the part of a sharecropper. . . .”
Booker was inducted into the Hall of Fame of the National Association of Black Journalists in 2013, was the first African American to win the National Press Club’s Fourth Estate Award in 1982, and received the George Polk journalism career award in 2015. Admirers also campaigned for Booker to be awarded a Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal.
In his 2013 memoir, “Shocking the Conscience: A Reporter’s Account of the Civil Rights Movement,” written with his wife, Carol McCabe Booker, Simeon Booker wrote in the introduction:
“For the better half of a century, I was known more often as just ‘the man from Jet than by my given name, as I reported on black America’s march to freedom from two of the most divergent viewpoints: the protesters on the ground, converging upon the courthouses, state houses, and legislatures to peacefully demand their constitutional rights, struggling to win the battle before others might take up the fight in suicidal desperation; and the men in the White House; the succession of U.S. presidents confronted with an unstoppable movement, and for one reason or another irrationally wishing it would go away.
“I was one of a small but dedicated cadre of black reporters and photographers whose stories and photographs in the black press finally drew the attention of mainstream media — and the world — to incidents of state-supported terrorism, as cameras caught public officials turning their backs on white mob violence, police siccing vicious dogs on peaceful protesters, powerful fire houses slamming down women and children, and police horses galloping over prone bodies. The stories and pictures brought a hue and cry from around the world, an embarrassed White House was finally shamed into action.
“As Washington bureau chief for Jet and its glossy sister, the monthly Ebony magazine, for more than fifty years, I reported on all the players, including ten U.S. presidents, until I retired in 2007. . .”
In the fall/winter 1993/94 issue of Washington History, a publication of the Historical Society of Washington, D.C., former Washington Post editor Ben W. Gilbert wrote about Simeon Booker’s brief time as the Post’s first African American reporter:
“In 1952 Simeon Booker, the ‘pioneer’ black reporter, was unprepared for his reception in the newsroom. Coldness and hostility replaced the support usually volunteered newcomers. Outside the newsroom, Booker encountered questioning of his credentials, cab drivers who would not pick him up, the overtly racist Chief of Police Robert Barrett, who once physically threatened him, and a lack of welcoming eating places.
“Endeavoring to break through Booker’s isolation, the city editor assigned a sympathetic ‘buddy’ to help him navigate the newsroom. Murrey Marder described the effort: ‘I was asked ... to give [Booker] as much guidance and back-stopping as possible.’ Marder wrote, ‘I knew he was going to have a very rough time, as an extremely shy, gentle fellow, propelled into the doubly hostile Washington police reporting atmosphere. A black Post reporter required an awfully thick hide to survive; it was not surprising that Simeon did not, but he did well for himself elsewhere.’
“Ruefully recalling his experience at the Post, which ended in June 1953 with his departure for Johnson Publications, Booker commented, ‘God knows, I tried to succeed at the Post. I struggled so hard that friends thought I was dying, I looked so fatigued. After a year and a half, I had to give up. Trying to cover news in a city where even animal cemeteries were segregated overwhelmed me.”
As Journal-isms undertook its “Stay Woke” fund-raising drive this year and last, Simeon Booker graciously contributed this testimonial last March:
“I devoted more than 60 years of my life to news reporting, from a weekly Black newspaper to the Washington Post and then on to more than a half-century with the best little magazine ever — JET.
“Now, at 98, I have few words left to say, but I can’t let this opportunity pass without expressing the greatest respect and appreciation - and the highest recommendation — for an enterprise that today carries on the mission in the finest tradition — Richard Prince’s Journal-isms. Read it, appreciate its unique contribution in challenging times, and make sure we don’t lose it.”
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Journal-isms is originally published on journal-isms.com. Reprinted on The Root by permission.