When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro. - Hunter S. Thompson

15 July 2007

Simeon Booker, the Man from Jet

Fascinating feature in today's Washington Post, about journalist Simeon Booker, who (among other things) covered the trial of Emmett Till's murderers in the pre-civil rights era:
Arkansas was scary, but not as scary as Mississippi. In Mississippi, you could end up in a coffin just trying to scribble in your notebook. In 1962, a European reporter by the name of Paul Guihard had been crossing the Ole Miss campus in Oxford, there to cover the protests against troops guarding James Meredith as he integrated the school. Someone blew a hole in Guihard's head with a gun. Simeon Booker was at Ole Miss that autumn. He knew the dark, kaleidoscopic danger of the place. He had been in Mississippi -- at that courthouse in Sumner to cover the Emmett Till murder trial. Till -- a 14-year-old black youth murdered by two white men in 1955 for allegedly whistling at a woman who was married to one of the men -- was Booker's damn story, and he knew it, his fingerprints on the reporting of it from the very beginning. They all knew it, every one of the reporters, the ones from the white press and certainly the ones from the Negro press...

...[H]e was the man from Ebony and Jet magazines, which meant, in a symbolic manner, beginning in the 1950s, he was the man from Negro and black America with a press pass. He was all over the South -- before it became a beat and a newspaper cause -- writing up his stories, getting them printed. When it was happening, when history was rolling like some kind of grainy as-yet-unseen newsreel, he didn't think about it much at all. "You just did the job," he says.

The wheels of the car rolled on then, and the notebooks stacked up in the glove compartment. He covered protests in Birmingham, Ala., civil rights deaths in Mississippi, voting marches in the Carolinas. He went out on campaign trails with the Kennedys. (The Kennedys liked him, learned much about black America from him. He was invited to JFK's funeral.) He covered the young John Conyers in Detroit. He walked down the streets of Harlem with a smile on his face, looking for musicians, looking for Adam Clayton Powell Jr., trying to find a slice of sweet potato pie.

He was so revered that when young black reporters came out of college in the 1950s, they looked him up. Like English department grads trekking off to Havana to find Hemingway.

The Man from Jet - Washington Post, 15 July 2007

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