As a young man in college and seminary, and later as a husband and father, I watched with horror the events unfolding in our nation. Many of us marched and rallied for the civil rights of minorities. My proudest contribution to the cause was founding a new church that was racially integrated, reflecting the diversity of our town. I am delighted and amazed that it remains strong, with a more diverse congregation than when it was started, forty-five years ago. Simeon Booker’s new memoir, Shocking the Conscience, truly shocked my conscience again, taking me back through the tragedies and triumphs, both personal and national. I was fascinated to read this gripping insider’s account of the courage and talent it took to be on the front lines of the struggles and to use the power and integrity of the fourth estate as an instrument of exposing abuses and working toward justice and peace.
One day we are going to classify Black life: “Black life before JET and Black life after JET.” I cannot imagine how miserable life must have been before, living on this planet if you were Black without JET. JET was the only publication covering us from the point of view of news. No one shocked the conscience of the nation and world like JET.
Entertainer and activist Dick Gregory
Simeon Booker (born 1918)
“He was the man from Ebony and JET magazines, which meant, in a symbolic manner, beginning in the 1950s, he was The Man from Negro and Black America with a press pass.”
That’s how The Washington Post described Simeon Booker in 2007, when he officially “retired” from journalism at age 88. Simeon Booker was the man who gave Emmett Till’s tragic, explosive story to the world through the pages of JET magazine. Why was Mr. Booker the catalyst? Because, as Simeon Booker told the story later, “Mrs. Till didn’t have anybody else in the press she knew.”
Now, in the spring of 2014, we have Booker’s stirring life story, Shocking the Conscience: A Reporter’s Account of the Civil Rights Movement. And his name is surfacing again as JET announces the end of its 63-year run as a magazine, cutting back to an online-only publication. On May 7, 2014, The Post’s Lonnae O’Neal Parker writes: “The Chicago-based publication with a circulation of more than 700,000 predictably chronicled famous blacks, beginning at a time when the black press was the only place they could get some confetti. But it also served as a ticker tape, a news crawl, providing a reliably tactile, even granular sense of black life in America. And for decades, it has been the signature piece of pass-around literature in places where black people congregate.”
That conjunction of forces—Simeon Booker, JET/Ebony and The Washington Post—was powerful fuel in the civil rights era. The Post played a small but crucial part in Simeon Booker’s rise to prominence in American media, when The Post hired him, in 1952, as its first African-American reporter. Booker would later say that, when he showed up to cover a news event and identified himself as a Post reporter, the notion of a black journalist was so preposterous: “The person who I said it to would start laughing!”
But there was no laughing in 1955, when Booker showed the whole world the iconic photo of young Emmett Till proudly wearing a fedora even though he was only 13 at the time the photo was snapped—as well as photos of the boy’s mutilated body in an open casket. Booker had left The Post in 1954 and those photographs were seen worldwide as a result of their publication in JET.
Booker, as the reporter, and JET photographer David Jackson knew what they were doing in working with Mrs. Till. The State of Mississippi had sealed the teenager’s casket, wanting none to view the mangled remains. Emmett’s mother, Mamie Till Bradley insisted that her son would be returned to Chicago and then insisted that the seal be broken to see her son. She said, “Let the world see what they did to my boy. Let the world see what I have seen.” With Mamie’s permission, Jackson flashed pictures of the tortured remains. JET’s publication of the pictures ignited outrage and a firestorm.
JET, the pocket-size magazine, first issued in 1951 as the little sister of the glossy Ebony, was the “bible” for comprehensive and current news of the civil rights movement. “If it wasn’t in Jet, it didn’t happen,” was the word on the street. This Fourth Estate force was crucial for the civil rights revolution because, for many years, white newspapers and magazines turned a blind eye to the painful realities of abuse, murder and denigration of the African-American community. JET told the story and moved the nation forward on the arc of justice and peace.
Simeon Booker, the dean of black press and JET’s Washington bureau chief, reported from the front line of every major and minor civil rights event transforming America. His honest, detailed journalism opened the eyes, hearts and minds of black readers and shocked the consciences of whites for more than half a century.
According to Booker’s new chronicle of the era: One hundred days after Till’s murder, Rosa Park reportedly was thinking of Till when she held firmly to her seat on that public bus in Montgomery, Alabama. Her arrest launched the citywide boycott by 47,000 blacks to stop riding city buses rather than take the back seat to white riders. Ninety Negro leaders were arrested and charged with persuading blacks to boycott. Ralph Abernathy and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. were among those arrested. Five thousand filled a Montgomery church to hear Dr. King proclaim that the tension was not between the races but “between justice and injustice.” Many theorize that the beginning of the modern civil rights movement was the peaceful and successful Montgomery bus boycott. Other historians and journalists argue that the genesis of the movement was the murder and trial of Emmett Till.
Booker’s new book traces the origin of the moment all the way back to the first major rally following the Supreme Court’s Brown decision that struck fear in the hearts of segregationists. A mammoth voter registration rally in Mount Bayou, Mississippi, resulted in the 1955 assassination of the Rev. George W. Lee in Belzoni. Lee, a speaker at the rally and a NAACP organizer, symbolically had his tongue and mouth shot off by his assailants.
Simeon Booker was not a swivel chair journalist. His first assignment in the segregated South was the Mount Bayou voter registration rally. When Till was murdered in Mississippi “for whistling at a white girl”—and Booker covered the story—JET ignited a firestorm nationwide. During the Till trial, Booker had to sit at the “Negro Press Table,” a folding card table, at the edge of of the courtroom. Later, he rode a Freedom Bus, was in Little Rock during the school segregation crisis, and covered the marches in Selma. He met and spent time with every president from Ike to Obama.
Before he was hired by The Post and then JET/Ebony, Booker studied as a Nieman Fellow at Harvard School of Journalism and said it was, “By far the best experience of my professional life… It taught me what real power was, how to use it, and how to expose its abuses. It also instilled in me a determination to do something meaningful to help my race.”
Shocking the Conscience: A Reporter’s Account of the Civil Rights Movement, by Simeon Booker and Carol McCabe Booker, reveals the story of the journey toward justice and peace as only the dean of the black press could share it.