Booker, Simeon 1918–
Simeon Booker 1918–
If journalists are the eyewitnesses to history, then Simeon Booker stands as one of the most significant witnesses to the history of the civil rights struggle in America. His list of accomplishments are many, such as being the first African American reporter for the Washington Post and being one of the last people to interview Martin Luther King, Jr. on television. What’s most notable in his life, however, is his front-line reporting of the defining moments of the civil rights era. “I had a compelling ambition to fight segregation on the front line,” Booker said upon receiving the Fourth Estate Award in 1982. “I stayed on the road covering civil rights day and night…. We ducked into funeral homes at night to photograph the battered bodies of civil rights victims…. The names, the places and the events became history.”
From covering the trial of the murderers of Emmett Till in Mississippi in 1955 to being the only journalist to accompany the Freedom Riders in their bold efforts to desegregate bus terminals in the Deep South in 1961, Booker documented these and other events with precision and passion. In 1955, he joined the Johnson Publishing Company, the publishers of Jet and Ebony, and has served as their Washington Bureau Chief for more than four decades, initiating and maintaining a prominent position in the corridors of power.
Booker was born on August 27, 1918 in Baltimore, Maryland, the second of four children born to Simeon Saunders Booker, Sr. and his wife Roberta. The family moved to Youngstown, Ohio when Booker was five years old. The elder Booker served as executive secretary of a local branch of the Y.M.C.A. Upon retiring after 35 years of service, he spent the rest of his life as a pastor of the city’s Third Baptist Church. Later in life, when Booker encountered dangerous and violent situations while covering civil rights stories, he posed as a preacher armed with a Bible in quiet tribute to his father.
Booker’s independent streak formed early, and he had little tolerance for injustice. At Youngstown College, when he learned that activity cards from the Y.M.C.A. weren’t issued to African American students, he transferred to Virginia Union University in Richmond, Virginia, where he majored in English. While in college,
At a Glance…
Born Simeon Saunders Booker, Jr. on August 27, 1916 in Baltimore, MD; son of Simeon Booker, Sr., a YMCA secretary, and Roberta Waring Booker; married Thelma Cunningham; divorced; married Carol McCabe, 1973; children: Theresa, Simeon, Jr., James (died 1992), Theodore. Education: Virginia Union University, B.A., 1942; graduate study, Cleveland College, 1950; Nieman Fellow, Harvard University, 1950-51.
Career: Journalist Reporter for the Cleveland Call & Post, circa 1950; Washington Post, 1952-54; Johnson Publishing Company, Washington Bureau chief, columnist for Jet, 1955-; syndicated radio commentator, Westinghouse Broadcasting Co., 1959-78; author of Black Man’s America, 1964; author of Susie King Taylor, Civil War Nurse, 1969.
Memberships: Capitol Press Club, National Press Club, Washington Speaker’s Bureau, Washington Press Club.
Awards: Nieman Fellowship, Harvard University, 1950; elected president of Capitol Press Club, 1956; Fourth Estate Award, National Press Club, 1982; inducted into Hall of Fame, Washington chapter of Sigma Delta Chi, 1984; Career Achievement Award, Washington Association of Black Journalists, 1993; Master Communicators Award, National Black Media Coalition, 1998.
Addresses: Office —Johnson Publishing Co., Inc, 1750 Pennsylvania Ave., Ste. 1301, Washington, DC 20006.
Booker earned money handling publicity for the school’s football and basketball teams. This work carried over into his summer vacations when he’d promote Negro Baseball League games in Youngstown.
Upon receiving his degree, Booker began his reporting career at the Baltimore Afro-American newspaper. After his stint in Baltimore, Booker returned to Ohio to work at the Cleveland Call and Post. Here, he became the first African American reporter to win the Newspaper Guild Award for his series on the city’s slum housing. He later won the Wilkie Award for a series on ghetto schools. Not content to just focus on his reporting duties, Booker also organized a union while at the Cleveland Call and Post and took graduate level courses in radio, script writing, and journalism at Cleveland College between 1945 and 1950.
In 1946, Booker wrote his first article for the new Ebony magazine. While living in a co-op which was owned and operated by an interracial group of students, Booker compiled many tales of living conditions among African Americans, whites, Chinese, Jews and others. He later wrote a series of articles for Johnson Publishing when he accompanied Herman Burrell, a sociologist from the Cleveland Urban League, on a cross-country car trip. These stories included a profile on the first African American cowboy in Wyoming, articles on the first African American Mormons in Utah, and a piece on the first integrated military base during World War II, Schofield Barracks in Hawaii.
Booker reached a turning point in his life in 1950 when he won the prestigious Nieman Fellowship to Harvard University. He became only the second African American to win the award since its inception in 1938. Under the research guidance of Professor Arthur M. Schlesinger, Booker scoured the library and read everything he could about the history of African Americans, including slave papers. When the fellowship ended one year later, Booker went to Washington where he ‘d been promised a position at the Washington Post by publisher Philip Graham. However, when he arrived in Washington DC, there were no openings at the paper. For the next eight months, Booker toiled in a government library until he was hired by the Washington Post in 1952 as its first full-time African American reporter.
Because of the restrictions of segregation, Booker was limited to where he could go and the kinds of stories he could cover. “They tried to integrate me at the Post,” he recalled to Carolyn DuBose of Ebony, “but it was just too tough.” Although he was a general assignment reporter, most of Booker’s assignments were about African Americans. After two years at the Post, Booker reasoned that if he was just going to write about African Americans, he should do so in the African American press. In 1954 he quit the Post to join the Johnson Publishing Company, the publishers of Ebony and Jet. In 1955, with the expansion of Johnson Publishing, Booker returned to Washington to serve as bureau chief. “You can’t get closer to the political front lines than the Washington Bureau,” Booker told Ebony in 1991. “Covering…a territory that includes the White House and Congress is a tremendous responsibility. You work as though blacks throughout the country depend on you for the real inside stories.”
Working for an African American publisher gave Booker the freedom to write about events like civil rights, with a much stronger and more critical voice than he could have used at white media outlets such as the Post. Booker seized this opportunity early in his coverage of the Emmett Till trials in Mississippi in 1955. The 14-year-old Till had been lynched by two white men, and the trial that followed is perceived as one of the first national disclosures of the discrimination and violence endured by African Americans in the South.
In 1961 Booker was the only journalist to ride with the Freedom Riders, a group of African American and white activists who were organized by the Congress On Racial Equality (CORE) to protest segregated interstate bus facilities. Although the Supreme Court ordered the integration of bus stations and terminals serving interstate travelers in December of 1960, African Americans in the Deep South who tried to use the front seats of buses or to use bus terminal facilities designated for whites were often thrown out, beaten or jailed.
In May of 1961, the Freedom Riders began their protest in Washington, DC and boarded buses bound for New Orleans. White protestors sat in the back of the bus, and African American protestors in front. If ordered to move, the African American riders were to refuse. Also, at each station or terminal, African Americans would attempt to use whites-only facilities. The protest was marked by violence along the route, with mobs of segregationists waiting for the Riders at nearly each stop.
The violence reached a nearly unimaginable climax in Anniston, Alabama. One bus was firebombed, and a bus carrying Booker and others was threatened. Sitting with a colleague, Booker took note of a group of “white toughs” as they boarded the bus and recalled that day in his 1964 book, Black Man’s America. “My seatmate, a photographer, whispered, ‘You think we’re all right?’ I nodded. Powerless to do anything, what else could I do? I recalled what the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., of the Montgomery bus strike, had told me the previous night in Atlanta: ‘I’ve gotten word you won’t reach Birmingham. They’re going to waylay you.’ I thought of my wife and three kids in Washington—but fear never produced progress.” Although Booker was not attacked, he witnessed the assault on the Freedom Riders. “I almost became a victim of the mob,” Booker wrote, “while witnessing…the slaughter of the bravest civil rights pioneers I have ever known…. I saw sticks and fists smash again on their faces and bodies—but they still moved forward.” For his part, Booker taxied to a local minister’s house where he called the headquarters of CORE and waited for a call from Attorney General Robert Kennedy. Kennedy called Booker and upon hearing of the day’s events, sent a plane to take some of the Freedom Riders to New Orleans. “That was probably the best reporting I did in my journalism career,” Booker recalled to Ebony, “explaining to Kennedy what had happened.”
The events of that day lived on in Booker, and he would often draw on that experience for the rest of his journalistic career. “Racial hatred, the damnable and terrible cancer in our American life,” he wrote in Black Man’s America, “had illustrated its malignancy throughout events of the day. That evening and many time since, reliving the tragedy, I have trembled and struggled to free my mind of the discouraging outlook for race relations.” Thirty years later, Booker’s view of that day had wavered little. “A frightening experience,” he told Ebony in 1991, “the worst I’ve encountered in more than 50 years of journalism.”
Booker continued to report on the civil rights struggle during the 1960s and early 1970s, and he also interviewed presidents, senators and other pillars of the Washington community. His column, “Ticker Tape U.S.A.,” became known as a must read for politicians, both African American and white. “Telling Black America’s story and diligently keeping us informed about events in the nation’s capital and the world, when you read it in Simeon Booker’s column, then you know it’s accurate and true,” U.S. Representative from New York Charles Rangel said when presenting Booker with the Master Communicators Award in 1998. In addition to his work in print media, Booker also served as a syndicated radio commentator from 1959 to 1978.
After over 40 years as a journalist, Booker still heads the Washington bureau for Johnson Publishing. Dubbed “the Jackie Robinson of journalism” by Jack Nelson, a Washington Bureau chief from the Los Angeles Times, Booker spent most of the 1980s and 1990s receiving achievement awards. He also remained committed to voicing the needs and concerns of African Americans through his writing. “Every week I must do something in my magazine to help somebody,” he told Ebony. “That’s what keeps me going. If black publishers have a little power, they should use it to help somebody.”
Through his work, Booker has helped and educated untold numbers of people. While his list of “firsts” is impressive, Booker’s five decades of journalistic integrity and excellence is inspiring. “What I’d like to be remembered for,” he remarked in a National Press Club speech in 1982, “is that the preacher’s son tried to put into journalism the values that his father said were missing—integrity, compassion for people and service to all Americans, regardless of race, creed or color.” As FCC chairman William Kennard said when at a dinner honoring Booker, “In a city replete with monuments, Simeon Booker is a Washington institution unto himself.”
Booker, Simeon, Black Man’s America, Prentice-Hall, 1964.
Editors of Ebony, 1,000 Successful Blacks, Vol. 1, Johnson Publishing Co., 1973.
Lewis, John with Michael D’Orso, Walking with the Wind, Simon & Schuster, 1998.
Ebony, July 1991, p. 17; October 1991, p. 17.
Jet, July 5, 1956, p.47; May 1, 1969, p. 8; January 20, 1992, p. 52; November 1, 1993, p. 22; November 3, 1997, p. 5; December 28, 1998, p. 46.
Houston Chronicle, August 27, 1995, p. 19.
Additional information for this profile was provided by Pamela Cash Menzies and the staff of the library of the Johnson Publishing Company.