Primarily a journalist who concentrates on race matters, Simeon Booker played a prominent role in documenting activities of the civil rights movement and the work of the Freedom Riders and their efforts to enforce federal legislation to integrate public transportation and interstate travel. In so doing, he lived at risk during the Freedom Rides, though not in fear, concluding that progress would never grow from fear. Like other journalists of that time, he disguised himself with his dress. He was present at all major civil rights demonstrations, including the first march on Washington and the Selma to Montgomery march. He became the Washington Post's first full-time African American reporter and later one of the first two bureau chiefs for Johnson Publishing Company, with an assignment in Washington, D.C. His illustrious career enabled him to interview the country's powerbrokers. He is also a columnist for Jet magazine.
The second of four children, Simeon Saunders Booker Jr. was born in Baltimore, Maryland on August 27, 1918, to Simeon Saunders Booker Sr. and Roberta Waring Booker. When Simeon Jr. was five years old, the Booker family relocated to Youngstown, Ohio, where the elder Booker became executive secretary of a local branch of the YMCA. Thirty-five years later he retired and pastored Third Baptist Church in Youngstown. Apparently his father's service as a preacher impressed Simeon Jr., for later in life as he faced threatening situations while covering civil rights stories, he held a Bible in hand while posing as a preacher—an honorable tribute to his father.
- Born in Baltimore, Maryland on August 27
- Received B.A. from Virginia Union University
- Begins graduate study at Cleveland College; becomes Neiman Fellow at Harvard University
- Becomes reporter for the Cleveland Call & Post
- Becomes first black full-time reporter for the Washington Post
- Named Washington Bureau Chief for Johnson Publishing Company and chief columnist for Jet magazine
- Elected president of Capitol Press Club
- Becomes syndicated radio commentator for Westinghouse Broadcasting Company
- Wins Fourth Estate Award from National Press Club
- Inducted into Hall of Fame, Washington chapter, Sigma Delta Chi
- Receives Career Achievement Award, Washington Association of Black Journalists
- Receives Master Communications Award, National Black Media Coalition
Booker began his college education at Youngstown College but was insulted when he learned that the college distributed activity cards from the YMCA to white students and not to blacks. That led him to transfer to historically black Virginia Union University in Richmond, where he majored in English. To help support himself, he did publicity for the football and basketball teams. During summer vacations he returned to Youngstown and promoted the Negro Baseball League's games held there. In 1942, Booker graduated from Virginia Union with a bachelor of arts degree in English. Now with a keen interest in journalism, he joined the Baltimore Afro-American newspaper staff as a reporter. He returned to Ohio and about 1950 joined the Cleveland Call & Post. He wrote a series of articles on Cleveland's slum housing and received the Newspaper Guild Award, becoming the first black reporter to be so honored. Recognition for his fine journalistic skills continued, for later he won the Wilkie Award for another series that he wrote on schools in the ghetto. While with the Cleveland Call & Post, he organized a union and between 1945 and 1950 he also enrolled in graduate courses in radio, script writing, and journalism at Cleveland College.
On November 1, 1945, John H. Johnson founded Ebony magazine, which covered black news in the same way that Life magazine exclusively covered whites. Johnson's new magazine aimed to appeal to black readers as well as to mirror the civil rights struggle of blacks who sought to desegregate the railroads, busses, lunch counters, hotels, motels, public schools, and other public places. The magazine and its purpose appealed to Booker, who in 1946 wrote his first article for Ebony. He continued to witness and write about racial injustices in the community. Booker lived in a co-op owned by an interracial group of students; there he wrote stories of living conditions among the various groups, including African Americans, Chinese, and Jews. He expanded his focus on racial problems when he joined sociologist Herman Burrell of the Cleveland Urban League in a crosscountry trip by automobile and wrote a series of articles for Johnson Publishing Company. Established first as Negro Digest Publishing Company, in 1949 founder John H. Johnson changed the name to Johnson Publishing Company. Booker's profiles included the first black cowboy in Wyoming, the first black American Mormons in Utah, and Schofield Barracks in Hawaii—the first racially integrated military site during World War II.
In 1950, Booker won the Nieman Fellowship for study at Harvard University, becoming only the second African American to receive the award since it was founded in 1938. Noted historian Arthur M. Schlesinger guided his research as Booker read widely on the history of African Americans. The fellowship ended in 1951 and Booker moved to Washington, D.C., where he expected to join the Washington Post. Since there was no position available to him then, he worked in a government library until 1952, when he became the Post's first full-time African American reporter. Disappointed that he was hired as a general assignment reporter but was to write exclusively about African Americans, he left the paper in 1954 and moved to Johnson Publishing Company, where he thought that his articles on his race would be more meaningful. Booker was elevated to bureau chief for its several magazines in 1995 when the company expanded and was assigned to Washington, D.C. He and Allan Morrison, who was assigned to the New York office, became the publishing company's first bureau chiefs and columnists for Jet magazine. When Johnson Publishing Company decided to open the Washington Bureau, officials faced immediate difficulty in penetrating the real estate market, for there were no black firms located in downtown Washington. This situation forced Booker and his assistant, E. Fannie Granton, to share space in a local law office. When the breakthrough finally came, the company became the first black-owned firm to rent space in a downtown Washington structure. Booker's training in broadcast journalism fit him well to serve as syndicated radio commentator for Westinghouse Broadcasting Company from 1959 to 1978.
Booker liked writing on civil rights issues, but he could also be as critical as he wished—much more so than he could have been at the Post. Soon Booker ventured into delicate ground, covering the 1955 trials pertaining to the murder of Emmett Till, a fourteen-year-old black youth whom two white men lynched in Mississippi for reportedly whistling at a white woman.
Joins the Freedom Riders
The modern civil rights movement escalated by May 1961, when African Americans grew impatient with conditions in the Deep South and its refusal to honor the U.S. Supreme Court's order to integrate bus stations and rail terminals serving interstate travelers. Those who tested the law were thrown out of the facilities, beaten, or jailed. As a result, the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE) organized a group known as Freedom Riders, who began their protest in Washington, D.C. by boarding buses en route to New Orleans. Simeon Booker, the only journalist involved in the protest, joined the racially mixed groups, who met mob violence all along the way. When the riders reached Annison, Alabama, mobs firebombed one bus and threatened the one that carried Booker. To escape the mob, he took a taxi to a local minister's house, called CORE's headquarters, and joined the nation in waiting for U.S. attorney general Robert Kennedy to take charge of the violent events. Booker wrote about the civil rights struggles of the era and his experience with the movement in his book Black Man's America. He noted the shift in racial conflict from courtroom to the rank-and-file black, and knew that every black, regardless of his economic or social status, could participate in street demonstrations. Of the black struggle, he wrote, "His century-plus freedom march resembled more of a hitchhike than a steady, onward march. But thrown onto the line were stragglers, grandmas, rabble-rousers, Harvard Ph.D.'s, racketeers, shoe-shine boys, doctors, widows_all shouting, hollering, picketing, demonstrating and making a racket in so many cities and on so many issues … that even the civil rights generals lost control of the field troops."
Booker's work took him to Africa as well, where he traveled with President Richard M. Nixon in 1957, U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy in 1962, and with Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey in 1968.
Simeon Booker remained an untiring journalist with a fascination for race issues. He conducted one of the last televised interviews with civil rights martyr Martin Luther King Jr. In addition to his coverage of civil rights issues during the 1960s and early 1970s, he held numerous interviews with Washington's luminaries, including U.S. presidents and senators. His oral interviews with the nation's powerbrokers are housed in such collections as the John F. Kennedy Library, along with those of other people who were associated with Kennedy, and are described in the American Journalism Historic Association's Occasional Papers No. 1, Oral Histories Relating to Journalism History (2nd ed., 1999). In addition to his numerous articles, Booker is the author of Black Man's America (1964) and Susie King Taylor, Civil War Nurse (1960).
Booker is a member of the Capitol Press Club (elected president in 1956), the National Press Club, the Washington Speaker's Community, the Washington Press Club, and the Association of Black Journalists. Widely honored, his recognitions, in addition to those previously mentioned, include the Fourth Estate Award from the National Press Club, 1982; induction into the Hall of Fame, Washington chapter of Sigma Delta Chi, 1984; recipient, Career Achievement Award, Washington Association of Black Journalists, 1993; and Master Communications Award, National Black Media Coalition, 1998. Booker is a member of the Washington, D.C., Professional Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, and he is listed in its Pro SPJ Hall of Fame for 2004.
Booker is divorced from Thelma Cunningham; in 1973 he married Carol McCabe. He is the father of Theresa, Simeon Jr., and Theodore. His son James, known as Abdul Muhammad, died in 1992. In his post as columnist for Jet magazine (Booker writes Ticker Tape USA) and bureau chief for one of the nation's most prominent publishing companies, he continues to cover the noteworthy events in African American living history and culture.
The Ebony Success Library. Vol. 1. 1000 Successful Blacks. Nashville, Tenn.: The Southwestern Co., by arrangement with Johnson Publishing Company, 1973, p. 34.
Who's Who among African Americans. 18th ed. Detroit: Thomson Gale, 2005.
"Backstage." Ebony 56 (July 1991): 17.
"Simeon Booker, JPC Washington Bureau Chief, Honored by Black Media Group." Jet 95 (28 December 1998–4 January 1999): 46-47.