Post Magazine: The Man From Jet

Wil Haygood
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 16, 2007; 12:00 PM

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.

So writes Wil Haygood, who gets up close and personal with the legendary black journalist in this week's issue of Washington Post Magazine.

Wil Haygood writes for The Post's Style section.


Wil Haygood: Hi, this is Wil Haygood. I look forward to talking about Simeon Booker, his life, his times, his amazing travels through the historic events which he lived through.


St. Louis, Mo: A simply terrific article that captures a courageous man and the terrible times in which he lived and worked. Haywood is to be congratulated for digging into the complexities of both.

Wil Haygood: Thank you. Mr. Booker never wanted to be the story himself, so he vanished inside the stories he covered. The best journalists must do that.


Silver Spring, Md: Mr. Booker had a very interesting career and did some historic reporting. But he was also spy for the FBI. There is no other way to look at it. He was used.

Wil Haygood: I think he imagined people would think of him being used. He dealt with that in his mind by a fierce desire, actually a double desire: To get his story and to stay alive. If the FBI could help him stay alive, in his mind, he obviously wasn't opposed to that aid.


Washington, DC: Thanks, Wil, for a great peek into the life of Simeon Booker.

One question: What is he planning to do with his personal papers? I'm sure he has a treasure trove of information in them.

Wil Haygood: I think he has been talking to some institutions about where he might store his papers. They deserve a good secure home because he had his eyes on some epic and historic events. And he was one of those people who had a sense of history, inasmuch as he kept all of these items, clippings, letters, notes. A kind of journalistic treasure trove into a reporter's life in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s.


Charlotte NC: Has Simeon Booker been honored by the National Association of Black Journalists, and if so, when?

Wil Haygood: I am not sure. He has been such a shy figure, but of course the NABJ knows of him and his contributions. His retirement affair was very well attended., and he was quite touched.


Chicago, Ill.: Do you know how/whether Jet will cover politics etc. in the future now that Simeon Booker has retired?

Wil Haygood: I'm sure Jet will continue to cover politics in a vivid way, especially as a presidential campaign is upon us. But of course it will take a reporter some years to gather the contacts Mr. Booker gathered during the years of his reporting career.


Washington DC: Wil, you are such a great biographer. What are you working on now?

Wil Haygood: Well, thank you very much. I'm at work on a book about a boxer, which is about as much as I want to say right now.


Washington, DC: Very interesting article. You mentioned that Mr. Booker initially has a wife and two children. Did he discuss at all the difficult balance of being a journalist in so many dangerous conditions moving all around with trying to be a husband and father?

Wil Haygood: He did talk about that a little. He was worried about getting back home. He was also worried about vanishing, about not being heard from. Which is why I think he felt he had to maintain some kind of contact with the FBI through the years. He needed a kind of safety net.


Anonymous: Do Jet and Ebony have as much of a voice now as back in the day? Does the younger generation embrace them now or have other newer magazines such as O (Oprah's) make them seem a little old school?

Wil Haygood: Great question. I think Ebony and Jet still have relevance and an allure. Does the younger generation have an idea of their influence and historical impact? I don't know. I do know that Ebony especially is a rich resource tool for historians.


Washington, DC: Is a biography of Mr. Booker in the works, by you or someone else??

Wil Haygood: I am not planning on writing a biography of Mr. Booker. But he is a worthy figure for sure. The world he lived in and wrote about had so much drama, year in and year out, that to capture that between hardcovers would be a fine challenge for any biographer.


Washington, D.C.: Wil,

thank you for your piece on Simeon Booker, and for all of your other exquisite profiles. As soon as I start to read one, I recognize your writing before I look at the byline. You really bring your subjects to life, as vivid, textured human beings. I almost think of you as a writer rather than a journalist, if you know what I mean. What is the source of your distinctive style?

Wil Haygood: You make me blush! Thank you. I try to listen to my subjects, I want them to breathe the story out. That way, through some of that breathing, that exhaling, I feel I can (hopefully) pick up the nuance and texture of their individual story. I sweat and tussle and agonize like any other writer though. It is never easy.


Alexandria, VA: What led you to write this article? It is an excellent look back into history and I am just curious?

Wil Haygood: One of the editors in the magazine knew about these amazing photographs that Mr. Booker appears in: With Robert Kennedy, with Coretta Scott King, in Birmingham during the Freedom Rides. And it was hatched from there: Would Mr. Booker be willing to talk about his life as a reporter. Once I saw the photos I knew I wanted to do it.


Anonymous: Mr. Haygood:

Your article on Simeon Booker is compelling. As a former newspaperman, I was struck by the dedication, drive and fearlessness of this man who was a quintessential journalist. He worked many years within the establishment and law and did a great deal to change both. I think I now begin to understand the era and the injustice.

I recall as a young boy watching the black and white images of the freedom riders on the TV, bleeding and battered. Years ago I interviewed a secretary to Martin Luther King who quit because such terrors as a stone or brick thrown through her office window. I have also interviewed civil rights leaders who worked through those times.

I remember the South before the interstates and air conditioning. I had a beat for a couple of years in a black community and felt paranoia as the only white person in churches, neighborhoods and city hall meetings as I talked with people who often did not like what I wrote about them. Yet, off work, I could go home and leave it behind.

Reporting is difficult enough even when you have the backing of a publisher with good standing in a community. Mr. Booker traveled for years through strange, hostile territory where even carrying a notebook could have gotten him killed. It wasn't just a day job. It was his life. At the same time he set the standard for hardnosed, cutting edge journalism despite incredible barriers.

I do not think that I ever came to a personal realization of the institutionalized evil. This article brought it home for me.

Thank you for your vivid account. It should be a must read for all journalists and journalism classes.

Wil Haygood: Thank you very very much. I often wonder, as well, if people have an idea of the hardships of that kind of reporting. You could be beaten and jailed. It was the era of states' rights, and the federal government trod throughout the South very lightly. But it is what we do: What you did, what Mr. Booker did, what I do: Make the best attempt to get the story and bring it home to the readers.


Dulles, VA: I read your article last night, and it was fascinating work. I realize the social climate of 1955 protected whites in the south, and I understand why the Constitution protects against double jeoprady, but surely we all see the horror of how there must be a means to deal with an acquited person who goes on the record to flaunt their guilt! I find it ironic that this horric act committed by the two men that murdered Till sparked the entire civil rights movement. What was the most shocking detail that you learned? Thanks for your superior work.

Wil Haygood: Thank you. I think the most shocking detail or revelation was the Booker's relationship with Rev. George Lee. I knew nothing about that until I started interviewing him. Booker knew Rev. Lee was going to be a kind of powerbroker in the South, far as registering rural blacks to vote. And he sat and talked with him for hours. Then, boom, just like that, Lee is dead, shotgunned to death. Booker was shocked and didn't know what to do. Actually, he did know what to do: He packed his notebooks and headed back into the deep South.


Washington, D.C.: Thank you very much for the wonderful article. I wanted to ask whether Mr. Booker touched upon his 2nd marriage to a non African American person? Did this hamper him in any way? Did he discuss various reactions from the community/family/friends?

Wil Haygood: I asked about that. I asked both him and his wife Carol. Both said there never was any negative reaction at all. They both appear to be very strong and confident individuals.


Dulles, VA: Did he actually witness the murder of Rev. Lee?

I have read that the state supreme court ruled that the 14 persons involved in Till's murder is simply legend and in not fact. How do you respond to that?

Wil Haygood: No, he did not witness the murder of Rev. Lee. The two men who killed Till later confessed to the crime, telling the details of it to another journalist. This was after they had been acquitted, and they could not be tried again because of the legal phrase known as double jeopardy.


Wil Haygood: Thank you all or joining me today to talk about Simeon Booker. So long.


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