Honoring a civil-rights icon

Today, Simeon Booker Jr. receives a college degree from Youngstown State University when commencement ceremonies take place at 2 p.m.

It is a degree that was 76 years in the making.

In between, there have been millions of fascinating steps walked by Simeon and his remarkable peers.

You can easily get lost in how harsh life was in their era and how wrong were some leaders of our communities across the country.

It’s also easy to get lost in the growth society has made in Simeon’s lifetime.

Either way, at the core of it all are people such as Simeon and others — who endured and persevered, often plotted and defied, and ultimately risked life to forge a better America.

And that’s what I found myself getting lost in most these past few weeks, and will still be today, when I get to join Simeon at commencement.

Simeon, 95, was a journalist for Jet magazine. This week in The Vindicator, we published a chapter from his new book, “Shocking the Conscience,” that recounted his first trek into Mississippi in 1955 when voting rights for blacks were just getting started. The chapter includes this account from Simeon:

On April 29, under a sweltering tent with an audience overflowing into the streets of the town, Medgar Evers’ call to stay and fight would be echoed by three powerful and moving speakers.

One of them was a Detroit congressman who would prove to be a staunch advocate for the disenfranchised blacks of Mississippi.

Another would be forced to give up everything and flee North rather than risk his life any longer.

The third would be shot dead before a new moon had risen over the Delta.

That’s just one close of one chapter in a lifetime that one could easily argue helped change America.

Simeon Booker was on the front lines of some of America’s most tense, violent and fatal struggles. They were not in another country trying to force out a regime or rid the world of a madman.

His battle was on the Main Streets of America’s South, trying to make two countries one. That battle needed evidence, and as a journalist, Simeon provided it — as hard as it was for him to watch and as threatening as it was to his life.

We see journalists today on the front lines of Afghanistan or Syria, and many of them are in harm’s way and die. But they often are protected by fearless soldiers with heavy artillery.

Simeon’s front lines were not as protected. He had a dusty Bible to help pose as a minister. He had a network of people in the South who could whisk him away in local cars that would not raise suspicion. He had partners who could drive dusty back roads with the headlights off so as to evade the Ku Klux Klan.

He lived. This weekend we were able to bring Simeon back home to Youngstown to be honored as commencement speaker.

Simeon is a son of Youngstown.

And a group of us wants to make sure that legacy lasts for others to learn.

We have formed The Simeon Booker Group, and we launched it Saturday night with a dinner reception in Simeon’s honor and hosted by his longtime family friend —and another Valley icon — Judge Nathaniel Jones.

We have crafted a program of scholarship, schooling and awards that we will begin promoting locally and nationally. It is our hope to appeal to organizations rooted in the concern that America can be a better place for all to live.

It’s what Simeon believed and worked toward for 65 years. And it started here in Youngstown, Ohio.

Todd Franko is editor of The Vindicator. He likes emails about stories and our newspaper. Email him at tfranko@vindy.com. He blogs, too, on Vindy.com. Tweet him, too, at @tfranko.

Don't Miss a Story

Sign up for our newsletter to receive daily news directly in your inbox.