Simeon Booker was a pioneering journalist, becoming the first black full-time reporter at The Washington Post in 1951. He went on to become a groundbreaking journalist for Jet magazine, writing a story about the lynching of 14-year-old Emmett Till in 1955 that helped galvanize the civil rights movement.
Booker died Dec. 10 at age 99. At a memorial service for him Monday at Washington National Cathedral, Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) said, “If not for Simeon, the civil rights movement would have been like a bird without wings.”
Former Post publisher Donald Graham, whose father, Philip, hired Booker, described the reporter’s impact on the news industry as “explosive.” Booker helped to “integrate an industry,” Graham said, “opening a door that thousands passed through.”
I was born the year Booker came to The Post, and 24 years later I became one of the thousands who passed through that door. Listening to recollections about Booker’s journey, I couldn’t imagine myself or any other journalist today blazing such a path.
Booker was born in Baltimore in 1918. He was 24 when he got his first reporting job with the Baltimore Afro American. Among his assignments: witnessing executions — hanging being the method during that time — at the Maryland State Penitentiary. During his stay at the Afro, from 1942 to 1945, there were 18 hangings at the prison — all of them black men, most in their 20s.
“That was the reason he cited for leaving the paper — he’d had enough of hangings,” Carol Booker, Simeon Booker’s widow, told me recently. “Looking back, however, Simeon would agree that witnessing the hangings probably prepared him to better handle the lynching and murders he covered in the Deep South.”
For many budding reporters, the execution beat would have been enough to kill any interest in journalism. But Booker just took another newspaper job, at the Call and Post, a black newspaper in Cleveland.
When Booker was 5, his family moved from Baltimore to Youngstown, Ohio. He left there to attend Virginia Union University, where he earned a bachelor's degree in English. (Apparently, Booker had known since fourth grade that he wanted to be a writer. While attending Madison Elementary School in Youngstown, he wrote a poem that was published in the local newspaper, the Youngstown Vindicator.)
Articles about poverty and housing that he wrote for the Call and Post helped him to win a Nieman Fellowship to Harvard. After that he joined The Washington Post.
While he was covering crime stories, police sometimes mistook him for a criminal. Some white reporters at The Post did help him learn the ropes, but others shunned him. He usually ate alone in The Post’s cafeteria and wasn’t allowed to use the same restroom as white reporters. Nevertheless, as Graham noted, Booker wrote stories “that made himself and The Post proud.” Two years later, however, he’d had enough.
“Some of it was just awful for him,” Carol Booker recalled. “He said it nearly killed him.”
More reason to give up on being a reporter. Instead, while covering the integration of Central High School in Little Rock, for Jet, he could empathize with the school’s first black students, drawing on his travails at The Post.
Simeon Booker had joined Jet in 1954, and he stayed there until his retirement in 2007. One of his early assignments was one he gave to himself. In May 1955, Booker decided to cover the shooting death of George Washington Lee, a black civil rights activist, in Belzoni, Miss.
“He was angry that no white newspaper would cover the killing,” Carol Booker said. “So he wrote the story for Jet and vowed to do all he could to make it harder for the mainstream press to ignore the racial murders that were occurring.”
In August that year, he made good on the vow with his story about Till, who was lynched by a mob of white men after a white woman lied and said the boy had whistled at her. The story was accompanied by a shocking photograph of the boy’s body, taken by David Jackson.
In the 1960s, Booker traveled with black and white Freedom Riders on buses that were attacked and firebombed by mobs of racists.
Graham spoke of the “great personal risk” that Booker took in covering the civil rights movement. Lewis said, “He did the hard work of telling the truth and at the same time surviving.”
He sought truth, not fame.
“He was a modest man, good-humored and always more concerned with helping others than helping himself,” recalled Barbara Best, who was Booker’s administrative assistant.
Asked at a book signing last year why he continued going into the Deep South to write about civil rights, Booker said without hesitation, “It was my job.”
But it was more than that. No “job” is worth risking your life for.
I liked how Best put it.
“It was his calling,” she said. “It’s what he was born to do.”
To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/milloy.