For more than half a century, Simeon Booker devoted his career in journalism to race relations, black politics and the evolving movement for civil rights. The stories that he, his fellow black journalists and their white counterparts covered exposed the white South’s brutality and contributed to the gradual mobilization against its repressive racial order.
His captivating memoir, though, is more than one keen eyewitness’s account of the myriad Southern struggles, some well known and others less so, against segregation, disfranchisement and racial terror. As Jet magazine’s Washington bureau chief, Booker covered the news conferences and interviewed the officials — particularly in the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations — who wished, in his words, that the “unstoppable movement” they encountered “would go away.” Equally valuable are his reflections on the working culture of mid-20th-century black journalists who confronted unique dangers while covering stories that white journalists initially ignored but that over time came to absorb the country’s attention.
Booker got his professional start at two black weeklies, the Baltimore Afro-American and the Cleveland Call and Post, during the 1940s. A stint at The Washington Post in the early 1950s brought him to the nation’s segregated capital and thrust him into an “extremely cold work environment” as the paper’s first black reporter.
Joining the editorial staff of Jet, then essential reading in black households, put Booker at the center of the unfolding civil rights struggle. The South was hostile territory in which he (often unsuccessfully) sought to work incognito by leaving behind his typewriter emblazoned with his company’s name and traveling with a small Bible to conceal his identity as a reporter. Over the years, Booker covered and at times participated in some of the era’s most violent and dramatic events, from the trial of Emmett Till’s murderers and the 1961 Freedom Rides to the now-iconic demonstrations in Birmingham, Washington and Selma and the riots of the late 1960s. He wasn’t alone. “Any civil rights explosion in the South was a homecoming for the finest in the Negro press, who converged on the trouble spot knowing they could expect little help from the police,” he recounts, sharing generous credit with many colleagues.
Focusing considerably more on the dramatic heyday of civil rights in the 1950s and ’60s than on Booker’s later career, “Shocking the Conscience” is a readable, personal and often moving portrait of grass-roots struggles, high politics and the role of black journalists who chronicled bloody and transformative moments in modern American history.
SHOCKING THE CONSCIENCE
A Reporter’s Account of the Civil Rights Movement
By Simeon Booker
with Carol McCabe Booker
Univ. Press of Mississippi. 334 pp. $30