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The Man From Jet

His name is Simeon Booker, and for more than half a century, he watched and wrote about the heartbreaking and majestic and fitful upheavals of a nation. It was a mixture of just-the-facts-journalism tinged with advocacy journalism. His stories were packaged in those colorful magazines -- Ebony and Jet -- with the charcoal or buttery or sepia-toned faces gleaming on the front covers. The delectable-looking swimsuit model in the middle pages of Jet sometimes was the inducement that led you to his dispatch, but he didn't mind. He was rolling across the land, in a '59 Ford, a '62 Chevy. In Vietnam, he rode with Gen. William Westmoreland himself.

He retired from Jet only last year, when he was pushing 90. Through the years he's kept clippings, little mentions of himself in newspapers when he was breaking barriers. Here's a picture of him and Moses Wright, the black preacher from whose home Till was abducted. After the trial, after the white men were acquitted by an all-white jury, he and Wright toured the Midwest together, speaking at churches, raising money for the NAACP. "He was so well-spoken," he says of Wright.

In Simeon Booker's America, the corner drugstore in Tulsa or Cincinnati or Detroit might not carry every big-time Negro newspaper -- and the Chicago Defender and Amsterdam News and Baltimore Afro American were big in the 1950s and 1960s, in the hands of so many colored housewives, tucked in the armpits of so many black church deacons riding the train to those Negro Baptist conventions -- but they carried Ebony and Jet, which meant they carried Simeon Booker. In a way -- and he's practically rising up out of his chair as he says it -- Emmett Till made Jet magazine, helped make Simeon Booker. "I could always pick up news about the case from my contacts down South. The white press would only say things like 'Negro Boy Missing in Mississippi.' But when Jet broke the story -- then the entire black press picked us up."

It was Jet that used the first photographs of young Till -- in his grown-man's hat -- smiling outward. Then came those explosive photos of Till in the open casket: Booker had told a photographer to follow him to the funeral home when the body arrived in Chicago. He was the only newsman there. "Ms. Till didn't have anybody else in the press she knew," he says of himself.

With the publication of the photographs of Till's mutilated body, it seemed like the whole world was talking about little Jet magazine. "We had to print extra copies!" Booker says.

Until then, Jet hadn't been about breaking news. But from that moment on, Simeon Booker would cover the big stories below the Mason-Dixon line. It was a tricky and dangerous assignment. But, somehow, he stayed safe. At times, it seemed as if he had eyes in the back of his head. He didn't, but he did have help from unexpected quarters: J. Edgar Hoover's FBI.

This is the same FBI that -- journalists and historians have shown -- was then attempting to undermine the civil rights movement and violate the civil liberties of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and other leaders. Hoover had accused movement sympathizers of being communist supporters.

But Booker had established what he regarded as a remarkable friendship with Cartha "Deke" DeLoach, a top Hoover assistant. DeLoach introduced Booker to Hoover, took Booker's phone calls, told him which cities were safe and which the bureau felt unsafe for a black reporter to be trolling around in the night.

"How do you think Jet and Ebony got all those stories down South?" Booker says, his voice rising. "I know what all the civil rights people have said about Hoover and the FBI. But the FBI was of great help to me."

Booker goes on: "When I left for the South, I always told the FBI where I was going. I wanted to get back home! The FBI was really a kind of co-engineer with us. Jet and Ebony never would have been what we were without the FBI."

SIMEON BOOKER IS 88 YEARS OLD. His old Olivetti typewriter is on a table in front of him. It's beige, with a large, bold red sticker attached to the cover: EBONY, the sticker says. The outer covering is cobwebby, but the inside gleams of black. It still works; it still sounds like rat-tat-tat music if you hit the keys.

Booker has lived long enough that the things that once were the lovely and necessary tools of his trade now seem like museum exhibits.


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