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The Man From Jet
The Call and Post veterans were not chuckling anymore. His selection made nationwide news, especially in the Negro press. Booker was one of theirs, and black publishers announced the selection lavishly. An example of just one headline: "One Negro Among 1950 Niemans."
Simeon Booker loved 1950s Cambridge: strolling across Harvard Yard, watching rowers skim the Charles River, smelling the falling leaves. He'd rummage around in the library for hours. A black lady rented rooms to black Harvard students, and she took care of him and his young family, a wife and two children then. During his Nieman year, he studied state and national governments, and the forces that made some cities succeed while others constantly seemed besieged by urban turmoil. In those pre-civil-rights-movement years, the study of race was considered exotic.
"Harvard had some famous race relations people," says Booker. "Arthur Schlesinger Sr. -- his son, Jr., just died recently -- took a personal interest in me. He was proud of my ambition."
One of the expectations for Nieman fellows is that -- despite ambition -- they return to the newsroom from which they have come. To Booker, that meant a return to Cleveland. But with his Nieman year ending, his mind raced in other directions. He held long debates within himself. "I decided to violate the rules and not go back to the Call and Post."
In his rented Cambridge room, on his typewriter, encircled in his cigarette smoke, he typed out 40 letters. Not to editors of the Negro press -- he figured he had outgrown them; he wanted to go where the knives were sharper and the tables bigger, to a daily newspaper. He wrote to the North, to the East and to the West. Licked the stamps and sealed the envelopes and strode through the Harvard air to drop them all in the mailbox.
"The only one to answer me," he says, "was Phil Graham of The Washington Post."
Phil Graham was iconoclastic, nervy, bold, a Harvard Law School graduate and publisher of The Post. Simeon Booker had strolled beneath the same Cambridge elms as Phil Graham once had.
There were no black reporters on the staff of The Post at the time. "I don't have anything right now," Graham wrote back to Booker. "But come to Washington, get a job, and I'll hire you at my first opening."
It was a huge carrot, and Booker couldn't resist grabbing it. He moved to Washington in 1952. He followed Graham's instructions: He got a job all right, stacking books at a government library.
But he loathed Washington. His freedom seemed to close in on him. It was the segregation. "I couldn't eat downtown," he says.
Graham, prescient, knew Booker would need moral support in those early days. "He told me: 'Don't hit anybody. If you get mad, just come up to my office and sit down and cool off.'"
And Booker took Graham's advice. A door closed in his face, another door, a finger pointing, telling him to keep going, to eat someplace else, and there he'd be, sitting outside the publisher's office, just whiling away time, breathing in and out, reading the paper, front to back, then rereading the stories that fascinated him.
In Washington he lived temporarily with his aunt, Dorothy Waring Howard, over on S Street.
It was such a small fraternity -- black reporters on daily newspapers -- and word spread like sunshine when Simeon Booker joined The Post that same year. He became the paper's first black reporter.
He appreciated his hiring. But soon, melancholy set over him. "The Post just wasn't prepared for a black to come there," he says. "It was all new to them, having a black guy in the newsroom. It was recommended to me that I only use the bathroom on the fourth floor -- editorial -- so I did. I could eat in the cafeteria, and I was thankful for that. But I was always alone. It was only a few reporters who I even got to know."
He goes on: "I'd go out on a story and say, 'I'm Simeon Booker from The Washington Post.' And the person who I said it to would start laughing! They thought it was some kind of a joke."
He was proud of his front-page stories, even if they were mostly related to crime.
Inside the newsroom, he wanted to talk about the craft of reporting, but it didn't happen. "I never got into a discussion with anyone there about writing. I never could adjust."
What he wanted to do in Washington, in the nation's capital, was put all that Nieman learning to use. He wanted to dig deep into stories, find their nuance, explain to readers how government worked, how it affected their daily lives. He wanted to have time to spend on stories. In 1952 he was 34 years old, ready to ride and ride hard.
But his only assignments were off the crime blotter. He found himself eating alone on park benches. He missed Professor Schlesinger at Harvard. He liked Phil Graham and knew Graham liked him, but he couldn't bother the publisher with his sorrows.
Nearly two years passed, and he decided he couldn't take it anymore. There was no cake, no going-away party. "I just left. I sent Phil Graham a letter saying I appreciated the opportunity they had given me. No one ever discussed my leaving. That was the problem: I was in there, but I wasn't there. I think it was a social experiment. But I give them credit. They hired me."
He left in 1954.
He had licked another stamp, mailed off another letter, been offered another job.
AT THE END OF WORLD WAR II IN 1945, a onetime insurance man by the name of John H. Johnson started a magazine. He called it Ebony. The magazine, based in Chicago, was a glossy affair; it quickly drew comparisons to Henry Luce's Life magazine. And it caught on in black households. There it was, on grandmama's chifforobe, in daddy's hand, on mama's end table. Peeking from the mailbox in richly hued colors. Harry Belafonte and Sidney Poitier and Lena Horne and Josephine Baker, all come to life. Johnson also started Jet, a pocket-size compendium of news, tidbits and features.
Looking for someplace he could stretch, Simeon Booker joined Ebony and Jet in 1954. He relocated, driving his sturdy Ford sedan from Washington to Chicago.
Then came the murder of that 14-year-old.
His name still haunts the way the name Anne Frank haunts. A wide-eyed child scooped up into horror, not a soul around to come to his rescue.
In late August 1955, Emmett Till, in Mississippi visiting from Chicago, walked into a little grocery store in Money. Money was really just a sliver of roadside, cotton fields stretching into the Delta distance. A white woman, Carolyn Bryant, was inside the store. He either whistled or winked at her. Bryant got word of the insult to her husband, Roy. Roy Bryant and another man, J.W. Milam, plucked the unsuspecting Till from the home of Moses Wright. He was found days later, a bullet through his skull, in the Tallahatchie River. Booker had, like many, heard the first reports of the missing child over the radio. He leaped into action. "When he was kidnapped, I called his momma," says Booker.
He went to her Chicago home. He sweet-talked her into giving him some photographs. "Being slick in those days," he says, "I knew to keep the pictures to myself beyond the deadlines of the other newspapers." It didn't seem to matter that other reporters came knocking on her door; Booker had established a confidential relationship with her.
When the body first arrived at the funeral home -- before the funeral itself -- Booker was standing right there with Mamie Bradley. The mother instructed the funeral director to open the casket. Everyone said no: They expressed concerns about the boy's head, how the look of it might shock her; no embalmer could pretty him up. But Emmett Till's momma insisted. Booker had dragged a photographer along with him. As the casket opened, Booker felt his legs weaken at the awful sight inside; he helped hold Mamie Bradley up so she wouldn't collapse. Booker's photographer clicked. And as awful and shattering as the moment happened to be, Simeon Booker knew he had a story. He told Ebony and Jet that this was their story -- actually his story -- and that they must spare no expense or effort.
Mamie Bradley said she wanted the world to see what Mississippi had done to her Emmett. So the casket was open on the day of the funeral, and as the chubby-faced Emmett lay down to sleep, the world awoke. Jet splashed the photos all over the pages of its next issue. Booker was orchestrating the Jet coverage. The mainstream -- white -- press did not completely ignore the story, but Jet's hold on the psyche of black America was so powerful, so complete, that black folks looked upon the little magazine as gospel. Other news outlets began referring to Jet's coverage. Stores were selling out of Jet. It peeked from the jacket of shoeshine men in Harlem; teens gawked at it in the libraries that carried it. There was page after page of narrative inside, a defiant mother and grim photos. "We suddenly had to print thousands more copies of Jet," says Booker.
He told the Jet editors what they were going to do next. "I said to them, 'We're gonna cover the trial.'"
This would be on-the-scene reporting. It wasn't the type of thing Ebony and Jet did. "It was unheard of in those days," says Booker.
He made his way to Memphis before heading into Mississippi. He was looking for sources and contacts. And trying to get the lay of the land. Reporters were prone to be attacked covering civil rights events. Sometimes Booker would carry a Bible and affect the severe gait of a minister when asking for directions. He feared being attacked or being followed out of town if his true identity were revealed. He also did not wish to get stopped and find himself riding beside some sheriff's deputy on his way to some unknown lockup.
He was in his late 30s -- pushing 40 -- and on his first big story. Not a thing would stop him.
At the Till trial -- the black reporters were separated from the white reporters -- he wrote every day. He sat next to Mamie Bradley. Ebony and Jet didn't publish every day, of course. It didn't matter. "Stockpiling stories," Booker says. Over the upcoming weeks, the stories would appear: There were stories about prominent blacks in the area, stories about Till's relatives, stories about the black physician who operated the little motel in Mound Bayou, Miss., where Booker stayed while covering the trial. (Mound Bayou was notable for being founded by ex-slaves, for delicious sweet potatoes, and for the growing reputation of a former insurance salesman and resident by the name of Medgar Evers, who had the courage to crusade for civil rights in the heart of segregation.)
Being in Mississippi, writing, sweating under the armpits, checking to see if he were being followed on the dark road back over to Mound Bayou, thinking about the arc of the paragraphs that he would write, was everything he had wanted. He knew it was a story that needed to reach the eyes of the world. Never mind that the evidence was overwhelming against Till's murderers. Both men were acquitted.
It was when Booker returned from covering the Till trial -- the South would be part of his beat for years to come -- that he strolled over to FBI headquarters in Washington. He just wanted to chat up some officials, to gather insight about how federal law enforcement was going to deal with the Ku Klux Klan in the South. Hoover assistant DeLoach met with Booker.
DeLoach, who had heard about Booker's coverage of the Till trial, was known as a smooth and sophisticated operative within FBI headquarters and had the complete confidence of the powerful Hoover. DeLoach even took Booker in to meet Hoover himself. They all chatted; Booker recalls Hoover as being amiable.
From that moment on, DeLoach delighted in hearing from Booker after his Southern journeys. The two would have lunch together from time to time. DeLoach also told Booker he would help him as he moved around the South, sharing bits of intelligence the bureau had gathered that might help him stay safe. Booker was quite appreciative. He began getting stories about the FBI -- positive stories -- into Jet and Ebony. One about a black chauffeur working at FBI headquarters. One about a black undercover agent who had spied on some communists. (He wasn't an actual agent, as it would take years before the bureau began to hire black agents. He was a so-called "special" operative, but even that revelation had astonished Negro America and left it with a tinge of pride.)
In the post-civil rights years, journalists and historians would discover that the FBI created a wide and seemingly deceitful network that sought to discredit Martin Luther King and his operatives as they fought to gain equal rights. Many felt the bureau had attempted to undermine or control the civil rights movement during the 1950s and 1960s, while white supremacist murderers seemed to slip right through its hands because of shoddy or lackluster investigations.
While researching his 1981 book, The FBI and Martin Luther King, Jr., Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David J. Garrow came across some correspondence between Booker and the FBI. Garrow cringes at Booker's positive stories about those FBI "special" agents: "It's one of the most hilarious snow jobs in American history," he says. Booker "was on Hoover's 'friends list,'" says Garrow, speaking by phone from the University of Cambridge in England. "I never talked to Booker. He was just too friendly with the bureau." Garrow believes that Booker was caught up in the FBI information-sharing net because of timing. "You ask yourself: 'Why does Booker fall for this?' Timing was crucial. As of 1957-1958, anyone could be granted the belief that the bureau was on the side of the good guys. So the question becomes: When should Booker have realized the internal truth about the bureau and the movement? Well, the King-Hoover face-off doesn't come until 1964. In terms of making moral judgments on people, the 'when' of it is important. From the viewpoint of Deke DeLoach, Simeon Booker was probably the most important black man in America then. Ebony and Jet had big footprints."
Garrow goes on: "There were so few black reporters then. If there was a big government agency -- like the FBI -- that treated you with respect, well, that's awfully easy to get romanced by. The bureau -- not withstanding the image we have of them today -- were some smooth and impressive guys."
An 86-year-old man is on the phone from Hilton Head, S.C. Cartha "Deke" DeLoach left the FBI in 1970. He went on to another career in the corporate world. "I loved my friendship with Booker," he says, recalling lunches they had and the cocktail soirees Booker would invite him to. The bureau was not trying to co-opt Booker during its relationship with him, says DeLoach. "I simply tried to be helpful. I wanted to make sure he was safe." DeLoach says he maintained a relationship with Booker because of two reasons: "He was a fair journalist, and he had a good personality." He says he thinks the bureau has been unfairly maligned in the area of civil rights.
"He was an imperfect pioneer," Garrow says of Booker. "But that shouldn't, and will not, substantially detract from how history regards him."
Booker says: "Maybe [they] looked at me as some kind of informer. I was giving them information -- far as where I was going, who I was going to cover -- and they were giving me information about staying safe. I never told a soul. I wanted to protect the FBI. I got a picture somewhere of me and Hoover and DeLoach. I never hung it up in my office because I knew what people would think. [But] I'd have never gotten into the South were it not for J. Edgar Hoover and Deke DeLoach. DeLoach saved my neck more times than I can remember. He'd advise me: 'This assignment is too difficult to do. This town is not safe.'"
That's the unmistakable soft-hard grin of Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy. He and the man from Jet are in Kennedy's office. A big klieg light is visible. Some kind of interview has obviously just taken place. Booker's association with Kennedy and the FBI continued to pay notable dividends. In Alabama, Booker had been on one of the buses that carried the Freedom Riders when they were blocked by a forming mob. Booker slipped off the bus through the back. "Luckily," he says, "a black cabdriver happened to be just then going by. I got in and said, 'Take me to [Martin Luther King Jr. aide] Fred Shuttleworth's house.' Then, when I got there, I called the FBI. I told them these people were in trouble. And then they sent in agents." The Kennedy administration also dispatched a plane to ferry Booker and others out of Alabama. In the air the Freedom Riders all looked over at him. Grinning, happy, safe.
Boookuuuuhhhh . . .
IF EBONY AND JET HAD CUT THEIR PUBLISHING TEETH ON ENTERTAINMENT NEWS -- Lena Horne becoming a star, Duke Ellington's foreign jaunts, Eartha Kitt's seductiveness -- they now had added hard news to their imprimatur. "Once the Freedom Riders got bombed," says Booker, "well, Ebony and Jet had to get off that society kick and get down to business."
He went to Africa. He went out on the presidential campaign trail. He was one of the first blacks to show up on those nationwide TV news talk shows.
The years rolled over. He cried when Jack Kennedy was assassinated. He cried when Martin and Bobby were cut down. Tears for America. He stayed at Ebony-Jet, reporting on the world he saw through his horn-rimmed glasses.
They've just landed, he and a military officer, in 'Nam. He's wearing a lightweight green military jacket, and on one side of his chest, in stenciling, it says BOOKER. On the other side of his chest it says EBONY-JET. There he is, being introduced to Gen. Westmoreland. And, oh, how the black soldiers wanted to meet the man from Jet. They all read Jet, read it back in Chicago, at the drugstore counter in Watts, in Harlem; they wanted to know if he had any doggone copies of Jet with him. He didn't. (They'd have to wait until they got back stateside to get their peek at those curvy centerfolds.) Vietnam scared the bejesus out of him. He'd find himself out on patrols with infantrymen, looking every which way, trying to imagine which direction the bullets might come flying from. He still has his helmet from 'Nam. "It was just not knowing when a stray bullet might come through and hit you."
SIMEON BOOKER WROTE A COUPLE OF BOOKS. Both are unremembered. One was Black Man's America, a treatise on race relations with scant personal information about his own life. The other was a children's book, Susie King Taylor, Civil War Nurse.
Eleanor Clift, Newsweek contributing editor, who first became aware of Booker when they had neighboring offices during the Carter administration, says she's surprised that Booker hasn't gotten more attention for his work. She wonders if it might have something to do with a generational shift. "First," she says, "he was before his time. Then when things became more radical amongst some blacks, they didn't think he moved fast enough. He kinda got caught between two eras. He is deserving of far more appreciation than he's gotten from both whites and blacks."
Booker was approached a couple of years back by folks who were making documentaries about Emmett Till. They wanted him to talk, but he wouldn't. He also he never got around to writing a book about covering the South, about the movement. About Martin, and Medgar Evers, shot down as he returned to his home in Jackson, and the Rev. George Lee, shotgunned to death in Mississippi for trying to register blacks to vote. A book about poor, ghostly sweet Emmett. Carol Booker, his second wife, legal counsel to the Broadcasting Board of Governors, believes all those deaths took a toll. Sipping sweetened iced tea with George Lee one day; the next, the minister is dead. "Took a lot out of him," is how Carol frames it.
And that's why he's talking now, she says. "I told him I didn't want him taking this stuff to his grave."
Here sits the man from Jet, someplace in the South, on some happy soul's crawfish boat. He's peeling away. He's wearing a goofy looking hat and khaki pants. He seems happy as can be. Because it wasn't all furtive reporting, dodging the Klan. Sometimes it was sitting beneath a pretty elm tree, looking around. Or talking to some man about family, about upcoming planting season. Or watching as some elderly lady sliced him a piece of her homemade peach pie. Or, like now, on the crawfish boat, rocking back and forth, and buttering his meal by moonlight. Sometimes the man from Jet thought he had the best job in the whole wide world.
Wil Haygood is on book leave from The Post's Style section. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. He will be fielding questions and comments about this article Monday at noon at washingtonpost.com/liveonline.