Simeon Booker, a trailblazing chronicler of segregated America, dies at 99

The pioneering journalist sought out facts that illuminated the dangers and dilemmas of black life.

Simeon Booker, center, is presented with a Phoenix Award at the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation's annual Legislative Conference Phoenix Awards Dinner in 2010.  CREDIT: AP Photo/Ann Heisenfelt
Simeon Booker, center, is presented with a Phoenix Award at the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation's annual Legislative Conference Phoenix Awards Dinner in 2010. CREDIT: AP Photo/Ann Heisenfelt

During the turbulent and segregated days in the middle of the last century, Simeon Booker, a fearless and ambitious journalist for Ebony and Jet magazines, journeyed into the depths of Dixie to document the brutality of racism. Perhaps best known as the man who shocked America with his honest and revealing reporting on the death of 14-year-old Emmett Till in 1954, Booker died Sunday at a nursing facility in Solomons, Maryland. He was 99.

Booker’s life serves as a reminder that U.S. history is an evolving subject. Born on August 17, 1918, in segregated Baltimore, his long life encompassed the periods of great struggle for black social, political, and economic empowerment. His death, however, comes at a moment when much of the past century’s gains are being eroded or undermined by political forces claiming to make American great again and deriding honest reporting as “fake news.”

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At a time when black reporters were rare and news from African American communities even rarer, Booker intrepidly sought out facts that illuminated the dangers and dilemmas of black life. It was risky work that held up a mirror to Americans, black and white. Through it all, he toiled without the fanfare that seems to sustain most contemporary talking heads and information purveyors.

For me, a black journalist who came of age during the late 1960s and early 1970s, Booker’s work was one of the reasons — maybe the first and most noticeable reason — I became a journalist. I read his work and was inspired to believe, as Booker once told a fellow journalist, “From an early age, I knew I wanted to be a writer. Teaching and preaching were the best advances for blacks at the time. But I wanted to write.”

And he wrote with courageous aplomb. Indeed, among the pantheon of American journalists, very few individuals have had the same broad reach and social impact on the nation as Booker. His reporting spanned more than five decades and included momentous events such as lynchings during the 1950s, civil rights protests in the 1960s, affirmative action and its backlash in the 1970s and 1980s, black political empowerment and the growth of a black middle class in the 1990s and 2000s and, ultimately, the election of Barack Obama as the nation’s first African American president in 2008.

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Except for a brief two-year span early in his career when he worked as the first black reporter hired at the Washington Post, the overwhelming majority of his career was within the black press.

After graduating in 1942 from Virginia Union University in Richmond, he worked for the Baltimore Afro-American and the Cleveland (Ohio) Call and Post, two of the better-known black newspapers that were circulated heavily among black readers nationally.

An academic year at Harvard University from 1950-1951 on the prestigious Nieman Fellowship led to his being hired at the Washington Post in 1952 as its first full-time black reporter. The newsroom integration experiment failed, as his white Post colleagues never embraced him and he left in 1954 to join the well-established Johnson Publication Company, the Chicago-based publisher of Ebony and Jet magazines, mainstay publications in black communities across the land.

Booker established himself as the Ebony/Jet Washington correspondent, reporting on the political scene in a segregated nation’s capitol city. But he made a name for himself by venturing into the South to report on the lives of black Americans living under the yoke of American apartheid.

In 1955, a year after the Supreme Court desegregated public schools in the Brown v. Board of Education decision and several years before Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. led the Montgomery bus boycott, Booker covered Till’s murder. Booker’s trusted relationship with Mamie Till-Mobley led the grieving mother to allow publication of graphic photos of her son’s mutilated and decomposing body. It was a decision that historian David Halberstam described as “the first great media event of the civil rights movement” in his book The Fifties, and helped to change attitudes against legal segregation.

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For the most part, America of the mid-20th century was segregated not only by race, but by the lack of information, as the 1968 National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, or the Kerner Commission, made clear. The news media of the day refused to pay heed to issues or concerns in areas where blacks live, save for reporting on sensational crimes. Thus, white Americans rarely had the means or knowledge of what anger and frustrations boiled in black communities.

Booker’s work — notably his coverage of the Till’s murder and, later, his coverage of the bloody Freedom Riders which led to passage of laws allowing blacks to ride interstate buses without restrictions — was noteworthy in that his compelling reportage forced white Americans to take seriously what so many black people experienced daily.

Richard Prince, who publishes the online column “Journalisms,” which tracks diversity issues in the media, said Booker’s work captured critical parts of American history and his death occurred at an moment when racial issues are once again prominent in the nation’s public conversations.

“The reminders of Simeon Booker’s bravery and courage during the era of Freedom Rides, the slaying of Emmett Till and segregated American newsrooms coincided with the opening of the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum and the backlash over Donald Trump’s appearance at that event,” Prince told me in an interview. “There are lessons there for those willing to see them.”