Witness to history: Simeon Booker remembers fight for ‘ideal America’

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Journalist Simeon Booker at his home in Lusby, Maryland, on August 27, 2013.
Journalist Simeon Booker at his home in Lusby, Maryland, on August 27, 2013.
Stephen Voss for MSNBC

For more than 60 years, Simeon Booker was a chronicler of black life in America, covering the murders of civil rights leaders in the South and the passage of civil rights legislation on Capitol Hill. As a reporter for Jet magazine, Booker would venture into the Deep South with little more than a bible and a beat-up car to try and disguise his identity as a journalist, filing stories about the courage and cleverness of civil rights activists and the racist terror campaigns waged on behalf of Jim Crow. Images of Emmett Till’s mutilated body that helped galvanize the civil rights movement were published alongside Booker’s reporting. His coverage of the trial of Till’s killers so inflamed officials in Mississippi that the local sheriff told another black reporter that if he saw Booker again he’d lynch the Jet reporter himself, not recognizing Booker was standing right there.

Booker was the first black reporter at The Washington Post, but it was with black-owned Jet and Ebony that he made his mark, covering the movement that altered American history from the activist trenches to the White House. At 94, with the help of his wife Carol, also a former journalist, Booker completed his 2013 memoir, Shocking the Conscience: A reporter’s account of the Civil Rights Movement. Booker’s career lead him not just through the perilous Jim Crow south, but ultimately to Washington, D.C., where even presidents, finally realizing the ability of the black press to influence black voters, bristled at Booker’s sharp observations in Jet, where he wrote until he was 88.

Few reporters can claim to have witnessed as much history as Booker, who reported on racist thugs beating Freedom Riders senseless for disobeying Jim Crow rules in the South. He watched a crazed mob try to prevent the Little Rock Nine from integrating Askansas schools and got under Lyndon Johnson’s skin by needling the new president about promises he had made on civil rights.

It was in D.C. where Booker, covering the 1963 March on Washington 50 years ago, saw firsthand the rise of a young Georgia preacher named Martin Luther King Jr., who would ultimately become the face of the non-violent movement for black rights in America. Though Booker is a quiet man more comfortable talking about the people he covered than himself, he and Carol opened up to MSNBC about the march, the movement and the moment. Excerpts from the interview are below.

What was the atmosphere like before the march? In your book you write about how there were fears that there would be some kind of violence.

I think there was a fear there would be violence. People were thinking about it underneath, but they kept on going anyhow. There was no violence, thank God. I thought it was a very healthy atmosphere, people were working together and there was quite a mixture of races, groups, men and women…there were so many people participating with different views. Ministers, young people, students, activists, there was just quite a mixture of groupings… it was just the ideal America.

How did political leaders respond to the march?

Kennedy had a two-sided approach to it. He endorsed it, but he didn’t participate in it. He watched it on television. So there was a mixed feeling as to actual participation in the march, a lot of them believed in it, but didn’t participate in it. Still it drew a large crowd.

Can you talk about some of the ambivalence in the civil rights movement itself at the time?

There was a growing feeling that blacks needed more rights but there was a great difference in how to approach it. You had about six or seven groups who had ideas about what to do. Asa Randolph, he was a leader, he carried a certain weight. Then you had people who had their own crowds, Urban League, Whitney Young, NAACP. Reverend King was practically a newcomer. He wasn’t one of the major ones. But the interesting thing was, after they converged at the march, the one who emerged strongest because of his speech, was Reverend King. He became the number one leader in a few months, which was very interesting.

Why did King emerge the strongest leader?

The others—Whitney Young wasn’t a leader, because he was a social worker, and he directed people to different methods. Randolph was a union person and he used the trade unions as his base. Others had their own different followings, clergy, congregations, but none of them had an overall backing, except when King came along. He had one strength: He could mix the little guy with the intelligentsia. He had the appeal, as he showed with his speech, to hold the masses as well as to keep the intellectuals together. He could reach all of them.

What role do you see the march playing in the history of the movement itself?

It was a gimmick that brought them together where they could sit down and work with each other. Before they didn’t have that. 

The best thing about bringing them together was that Dr. King emerged. He at that time had just worked his way to the front of the line. He didn’t have any strong backing in any area, his organization was small, it gave him a chance to build, and that’s what he did. All the organizations then began to work together more.

Do you think the March ultimately helped get the Civil Rights Act of 1964 passed?

I think it kept it together and pushed them to keep on the right path. They were on the right track. There was a lot of opposition from the political side. The top politicians, this wasn’t their bag. But the voters in that crowd, they went along. So they pushed the politicians eventually to pass the legislation.

What was it like going from covering violence in the South to covering the White House?

Completely different. Covering the White House, one of the real areas of conflict was the White House press conference, asking questions. You stood up, you were looking at all kinds of faces of reporters representing all different views, plus you were facing the president, that was an awful scene. You were really on the spot, and you knew you had very little support among the people listening. That was a very difficult event to go to press conference, and you get in your mind to go to ask questions, because any question you ask, you were going to be berated in some circles, but you had to continue.

You went from those press conferences to some pretty scary places.

I was a northerner, grew up in the North. When I was in the South, I couldn’t believe blacks were treated like that. Families were just afraid to talk, stand out, it swept me away because that was my market. I was representing black publications, and people were reading our magazine. We were the largest black publication. It was a very difficult scene, and hard to describe, because at times it was so tense, and that area of the country was so different…Boy I caught hell.

When I would go down in the Deep South, I had no place to eat regularly, you had to carry a sandwich in your pocket, sleep in your car, you had to travel in an old car. I’d fly from Chicago to Memphis to this place, rent an old car, and I’d leave there to go to Mississippi. It was rough. Because you never knew when you would come out of Mississippi. Or where…The Till case tore me loose. I just never could believe life was as savage as it was.

I then began to see the real black progress and black problems and I learned a lot from it. It helped me in journalism to develop. It also opened up a way for me to meet more whites. One advantage was, I began to make contact with the Nieman fellowship at Harvard. After applying three times, I eventually won a Nieman fellowship which really changed my journalistic life, by giving me the background in national affairs, government, and international events that I hadn’t had before. It really opened my eyes. I really developed. And after I left Harvard, I violated the Nieman rules. You’re supposed to go back to the original paper [you worked for]. I wanted to go to the Washington Post, because I didn’t think our papers could use material that I had gained. I went to the Post, but they put me all the way down at cub reporter status, so I didn’t stay there long.

When you were covering these stories, did you think there would be a black president?

That was an interesting question. I always dreamed, that was my way of keeping a part of, keeping active in journalism, believing that someday there would be a black president. When it came, I had retired, so I didn’t get to enjoy it from a close up angle. Fact is, I met Obama, he had come to my retirement party—[Carol interrupts]

Carol: No, no,

Simeon: What’d he come to?

Carol: The Congressional Black Caucus Foundation in 2010 gave you a lifetime achievement award, and he came to congratulate the awardees, which included Harry Belafonte and Judith Jamerson…

Simeon: Keep going, you’ve got the facts. I’ve forgotten them! [laughs]

Carol: It was very nice, we’ve got pictures in the book.

So you did get to meet Obama?

Simeon: I met him, he came on the stage at this event she was talking about…I met him, and I always remember his wife kissing me. Is that right? [Carol nods] Ok.

At first a lot of white publications ignored big events in the civil rights movement. Did you have more competition later on when they started paying attention?

I wouldn’t consider it competition. They were covering it, but they were covering it for their market. I was covering it for my market so it was a difference in coverage. I think their covering it made it more of an important market than the black press covering it. It made it more of a legitimate news field, and more people began to pay attention to it.

Do you think that would have happened if the black press hadn’t covered it first?

I guess eventually they would have begun to cover it. I don’t know, that’s an iffy kind of a question. But they did cover it. And they did well some of them were very good, some of them were excellent reporters who became experts at it.

When you first started it, you worked for a couple of black owned newspapers, if you were starting out today where would you want to work?

I would want to work on the major markets, newspapers or magazines, like the New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, the Washington Post. The magazines would be Life, Time, that sort of thing.

How important was it to have black journalists covering the civil rights movement at the time? And how important is it now?

It’s important because they get to a side of black life that isn’t touched in the daily press. I look at the tenor of reporting today, the daily press has its own functions, very rarely including the black community. You don’t see anything about black life in the daily press, except for an unusual event. They don’t cover regularly, churches, news organizations…they will cover police, crime that sort of thing that keeps a slanted view.

In your book, when you talk about the civil rights movement, you include yourself. Was it even possible to cover something like the civil rights movement without taking a side?

You would be on one side or the other, but as long as you got your story out, it wouldn’t make any difference as long as your story was objective. I covered the South, son of a YMCA secretary and Baptist preacher, an idealist. The South changed me around and everything I thought of. I never realized blacks were coming up in such a turned around fashion. 

What do you mean turned around?

In those days, there was no level playing field. Fact is, there might not have been a playing field at all. There was little agreement. Everyone had their own way of doing things. It took time for them to come together and map out a plan that had a chance of working.

You got into some pretty tough situations down South. What was the scariest moment that you had?

Carol: When Sheriff Strider came into the black press table during the Till trial, and said where is that nigger reporter who works for the little magazine called Jet. And he’s sitting there, and Jimmy Hicks of the New York Amsterdam News without a beat says, he left yesterday. And Sheriff Strider says, if I ever see him again I’m going to take his head off his neck, and walked out.

Booker: He wasn’t kidding.

Carol: I asked him once when he was at the back of the bus on the first freedom ride, and everyone was being beaten up by these thugs, and asked if that was the scariest moment, and he said no because there were so many people. He said it was when he was alone, or nearly alone, that was the scariest.

Booker: You’ve got a good memory. [smiles]

Carol: I know.

Booker: A sad time was, after President Kennedy died, I got a call from Bobby Kennedy, he wanted to see me at his office. I went over there, and there he was crying over at his desk. I walked over and I said “damn, “Mr. Attorney General, you’re Irish, I’m black, I’m the one who’s supposed to be crying.” And he straightened up and said, “Booker you always know what to say.” But those were some tough times.

What do you think is the most important issue facing black people in America today?

Simeon: Since I’ve retired, I can’t…

Carol: You can’t hide behind that! You have to have an opinion.

Simeon: Eliminating poverty. That holds back blacks because we have such a high number of blacks who are at the bottom, and have no chance to go up and so they’re easy victims of crime, and they pull down the group. We need to do something about it…The war is not over, and we have to develop, take pride in our people, and help them.

Witness to history: Simeon Booker remembers fight for 'ideal America'

Updated