The Man From Jet

By Wil Haygood
Sunday, July 15, 2007

Boookuuuuhhhh . . .

The other reporters would spot him sitting in front of the Sumner courthouse in Tallahatchie County, Miss. He'd be plotting how to get his interviews, where to find a bed, how he might fuel up the car -- and keep himself safe. Or they'd spot him coming out of Daisy Bates's home in Little Rock, a cold Co-Cola (as they pronounced the soft drink) in his hand, and they'd cackle about how he seemed to have doggone contacts everywhere. Daisy was a newspaperwoman who served as a kind of mother hen counselor to the kids, the kids Little Rock officials didn't want to integrate their schools.

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.

Boookuuuuhhhh . . .

They'd greet him before they reached him, before one palm shook the other palm.

He smoked in those days -- Kent cigarettes -- and there always seemed to be one hanging from his lips. All bow-tied up, in his horn-rimmed glasses and elegant suit, he looked like some background musician in Dizzy's or Count Basie's band. He looked like a bebopper.

Actually, he 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.

But he wasn't in Havana. He was in one or another Southern town, angling into an assignment, and he'd hear his name cutting the air as it rolled off the lips of the scribes who had just spotted him. It sounded almost musical the way they'd call out his name:

Boookuuuuhhhh . . .

AN OLD MAN HAS COME TO THE DOOR OF HIS HOME ON CAPITOL HILL. He has a butterscotch complexion. His eyeglasses are huge. He's wearing a checkered shirt and brown pants and soft-soled shoes. There are boxes stacked against a nearby wall -- much of his life, in words and photographs, pressed together. He's been assembling his personal papers, though he doesn't put any fancy spin on it. He was just a newspaperman. He just happened to be at the center of a lot of historical events. "My granddaughter sent this box of stuff over," he says, almost apologetically. Through life -- marriage, divorce, moving -- things got scattered.

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