Simeon Booker—the dapper, bespectacled “Man From JET,” as he was known far and wide during the Civil Rights Movement era and beyond—remembered clearly what the Black woman was screaming in the Mississippi funeral home. “Lord, get him away! I don’t want to talk to him! I don’t want him here! Get him out of here!” She wasn’t screaming at Booker. The woman’s husband, a school principal, had been murdered. (His crime? It was rumored he was helping the local NAACP.) She was shouting at the local civil rights leader who had just entered, introducing himself. “Get him out of here!” she screamed at Medgar Evers. “They [the NAACP] got my husband killed, now they’re going to get me killed.”
Booker saw—and experienced—the fear close up.
This past January, Booker, who will turn 95 next month, was inducted into the Hall of Fame of the National Association of Black Journalists in Washington, D.C. The Jan. 17 ceremony, held at the Newseum, the national journalism museum, happened days before the second inauguration of the first Black president.
In the half-century between the two events, Black America grew up and out in many significant ways. By 1963, the large monthly Ebony and the weekly, pocket-sized Jet had become required reading for Negro America in the days before network television’s dominance downgraded the socio-political importance of major-market national magazines. Ebony and Jet’s coverage of the Civil Rights Movement, led by Booker, Lerone Bennett Jr., Moneta J. Sleet Jr. and other brave journalists, is now required reading for any serious Movement historians.
Booker’s recent memoir of his days as a reporter for Johnson Publishing Company—especially his 51 years as the Washington bureau chief for JET (he only retired from the post six years ago, in 2007, at the age of 88)—is called Shocking the Conscience: A Reporter’s Account of the Civil Rights Movement (University Press of Mississippi).
Journalist Carol McCabe Booker assisted. The married couple had the usual sinister research help from the Federal Bureau of Investigation, who secretly and illegally tracked Booker (along with hundreds of Movement activists in the 1960s and 1970s), producing a confidential counter-intelligence file on him. Strands of memory have been given extraordinary detail here via Booker’s personal files and the FBI’s.
The memoir does three important things.
It adds to the richness of Civil Rights history because it is told from a fulltime witness. Booker was there in Chicago when Emmett Till’s sealed coffin was opened, and in Mississippi when J.W. Milam and Roy Bryant were unfairly acquitted of Till’s 1955 lynching. He was on one of the buses of the Freedom Rides in 1961, sitting in the back, just a few rows away from getting assaulted by racist Whites. (He quickly gave the Whites a copy of JET to look through—“If nothing else, I thought, the magazine might distract the gang for a while and buy us some time until we reached Birmingham”—and they left him alone.) And he was in Washington, D.C. for decades, covering Beltway insider politics for Black America, from disappointment in President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s civil rights policy contortions up through the creation of the Congressional Black Caucus, stopping at the beginnings of Obama euphoria.
Booker seizes to define himself, particularly to defend his character against descriptions of him in Movement histories as a sympathizer to Hoover’s FBI. Booker’s documented reality is that Booker had high-level contacts in the bureau and used them. He wrote positively on Black FBI agents and criticized the FBI when it failed to assist Movement veterans. He quotes from his own FBI file to prove his point.
Most importantly, this essential book for journalists and Movement history buffs reintroduces the Black fear and (mostly) White racist violence of the time, shoving it back in the face of 21st Century folks who may have grown apathetic, if not simply naive, to it. Booker reminds readers how conservative and afraid the majority of Black people were, once upon a time. Booker boldly covered the Movement, but he knew when to blend in and not be noticed. The fear would be conquered, death by death, inch by bloody inch, and Booker would not only live to tell the tale, but to take a deserved bow, from NABJ, JPC and Black America, for doing it so thoroughly and so well.
Todd Steven Burroughs, Ph.D., is a lifelong student of Black press history. He has taught at Morgan State University at Howard University. He is the co-editor, with Jared Ball, of “A Lie of Reinvention: Correcting Manning Marable’s Malcolm X” and the co-author, with Herb Boyd, of “Civil Rights: Yesterday and Today.” His popular culture blog is drumsintheglobalvillage.com.