Fear Came With Covering The Deep South

Journalist Simeon Booker braved the dangers of the Deep South during the Jim Crow era. His reporting about the horrific murder of Emmett Till sparked national outcry and added fuel to the civil rights movement. Host Michel Martin speaks with Booker about his remarkable career for a Tell Me More 'Wisdom Watch' conversation.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Now, we turn to a legend in journalism and the civil rights movement - pioneering, award-winning reporter Simeon Booker. He had a front-row seat to Dr. King's life and nearly every major civil rights story of his time. Readers of JET magazine will recognize his name as that magazine's longtime Washington bureau chief. During his six and a half decades in journalism, Booker relied upon his personal courage and his smarts to travel around the segregated South, to bring stories of national importance to his audience.

In 1955, his coverage of the horrific murder of a boy named Emmett Till sparked a national outcry, and added fuel to the civil rights movement. He says he's most proud of the successes that movement has seen in his lifetime.

SIMEON BOOKER: I always like to think of how conditions were when we started, and how they were when I quit.

MARTIN: Simeon Booker retired from JET magazine in 2007. And now, at the age of 94, he has completed a memoir with his wife, Carol McCabe Booker. The book is called "Shocking the Conscience." It is due out this April. He's been honored by the Newspaper Guild and the National Press Club and last week, he was inducted into the National Association of Black Journalists Hall of Fame.

And Simeon Booker joined us earlier in our Washington, D.C., studios. Welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.

BOOKER: Thank you. I appreciate it.

MARTIN: You were the first black reporter, African-American - I guess we were Negroes back then - hired by the Washington Post, in 1952. But you know, Washington, D.C., was still segregated at that time . And you write in the book about the fact that you couldn't even eat lunch in a lot of the federal buildings...

BOOKER: Oh, yeah.

MARTIN: ...that you had to cover.

BOOKER: I had to either buy my lunch, or have somebody else buy it for me. I couldn't just go with the group. I always had to be the loner, which made an impression on me.

MARTIN: What impression do you think it made on you?

BOOKER: That I was different. I was missing a lot of things in life that I just didn't know about. And I just was carted off on the side and treated like cattle, more or less.

MARTIN: When you quit the Post after two years, and went to work for Ebony and JET - I want to read a section from the book about your first trip to Mississippi. I'll just read just a little bit of that. You write, quote, "Mississippi in 1955 was like nothing I had ever seen. What I witnessed there was not only raw hatred, but state-condoned terror. I quickly learned that you could be whipped or even lynched for failing to get off the sidewalk, approaching a white person."

And you made it your mission to document the violent murders that you saw, many of them completely ignored by the white press. And when you look back on that time, what do you remember most vividly?

BOOKER: Well, the most vivid signs of that period, for me, was that I was a Northerner. And when I went into journalism and went South, then I saw a part of America I'd never seen before, I knew nothing about. I just couldn't believe that a race of people could be just set aside; told you couldn't work here, couldn't live there, couldn't eat this - couldn't eat there. It just was so hard on me. I just revolted and said well, I'm going to change this because this wasn't the way people live, and this isn't the way countries ought to be.

MARTIN: Were you ever frightened?

BOOKER: My whole life was one of fright in newspapering, when I was in the South, because you never knew what happened the next minute.

MARTIN: One of the most important stories that you covered was the murder of Emmett Till. In 1955, he was a boy from Chicago who was - really, tortured, and shot and killed while visiting relatives in Mississippi. He was famously accused of having whistled at a white woman. And your magazine, JET, famously published the photos of Emmett Till in the open casket. How difficult a decision was that, for the magazine to go forward with those photographs?

BOOKER: That was a very difficult decision for them because I don't think they were in it, and they didn't realize the seriousness of it. But going down there and seeing all the turmoil, I knew what was coming up.

MARTIN: Well, you talk about just - not only the atmosphere of tension, but just the kind of routine disrespect that African-Americans were treated with. I mean, anybody...

BOOKER: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...could say anything - but let me just say it. Anybody white could say anything to anybody black.

BOOKER: Well, that was Mississippi.

MARTIN: Yeah.

BOOKER: And Mississippi was - we just had no base at all to be there except to be second class in a state where they had no rights, no power, no jobs, no money - nothing.

MARTIN: When you look back on those times, how do you think people were able to do those things? I mean, how were they able to kind of go there every day and do what they were trying to do?

BOOKER: It was a very dangerous way to live. But they lived it, and they believed. And that faith in the movement, the civil rights movement - because they had people who had that kind of spirit, and they are the ones that brought us from the back to the front.

MARTIN: Of the 10 presidents that you covered, did you have a favorite?

BOOKER: My favorite was John F.K.

MARTIN: Really?

BOOKER: He put me in his pool. First black ever in a newsman pool, in the White House. He was the one, and when he was killed, that was a - oh, that was a sad day for me.

MARTIN: What about your least favorite?

BOOKER: Well...

MARTIN: Anybody you didn't care for so much?

BOOKER: I just never had much respect for LBJ because he was so brusque but yeah, he did a lot of good things for blacks. He just wasn't my type.

MARTIN: OK, OK. (LAUGHTER) Do you have any final thoughts on this Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday, which is also Inauguration Day?

BOOKER: I always had great respect for Dr. King because I spent a lot of days covering him. He was a very brave man, a very courageous man, and he was a man that had a certain moral tone to what he said.

MARTIN: Well, thank you for spending some time with us, sir.

BOOKER: Well, I'm glad to have been able to do that.

MARTIN: Simeon Booker was the Washington bureau chief of JET magazine for more than five decades. He is the author along with his wife, Carol McCabe Booker, of the forthcoming memoir "Shocking the Conscience," and he was kind enough to join us here in our Washington, D.C., studios.

Thank you very much for joining us.

BOOKER: Thank you.

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