In 2014, the Associated Press Society of Ohio inducted Youngstown son Simeon Booker into its state journalism Hall of Fame.
Nominating him was a project of ours here at The Vindicator. He’s a special person for us as well as for our city.
But he’s also a special story for America.
Simeon is now 97 and resides in Washington, D.C., where he’s lived most of his adult life. It’s been a breathless life in many ways, but especially in the 1950s and 1960s.
We pause now at some of our country’s racial challenges. Those challenges, I believe, would be more profound if not for Simeon’s courage and bravery.
As a journalist, Simeon chose to report on America’s epic struggle with race.
Within that tough theme, he chose some of the toughest paths – tempting death numerous times.
His first reporting for Jet magazine was just after the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision that ruled school segregation unconstitutional. It sent segregationists in America’s South into a tailspin. Black rallies for rights soon started, followed pretty quickly by black lynchings.
Down South for the first time and appalled, Simeon told himself the next murder would be reported like none other before.
He didn’t have to wait long.
A small story in a newspaper reported that a Chicago teen visiting family in Mississippi had been killed. Simeon owned it. The ghastly images and piercing reporting of the Emmett Till killing in 1955 launched Simeon. From there, he rolled through America’s South from one immense struggle to another.
He achieved modest acclaim – largely within the D.C. media community and the African-American community via Jet.
But for most of America and even in the place of his youth, Youngstown, he remains largely unknown.
So given that, the 2014 Ohio AP Hall of Fame event was unique.
Simeon walked from his wheelchair to the podium and gave a pretty good speech for a man as up in his years as he is. To the handful of us at his banquet table, we were as enriched as could be for family and friends who knew the story.
But it was after the program that is most memorable. A stream of people made their way to Simeon to shake his hand, take a picture and generally be in his presence.
When you know his story, you’re brought to a pause. The longer you pause over his feats, the more that stillness within you rises to a shivering chill.
This week, the chills returned due to the actions of our Ohio congressional leadership.
Sens. Sherrod Brown and Rob Portman and U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan penned a letter that also was signed by their peers in Ohio and Maryland, where Simeon was born. The letter urges President Barack Obama to award a Presidential Medal of Freedom to Simeon. The medal is the highest honor for accomplishment a citizen can receive.
“I have always loved people who see life as an opportunity to bring about positive change,” Ryan said Friday. “Simeon lived that kind of life. He helped shape an outcome with courage and intelligence. It’s his sense of adventure that we want to honor so that other young men and women in our Valley will be inspired by his life and work.”
To support their letter, we launched at The Vindicator a petition drive on the White House’s “We The People” website.
The petition needs 100,000 signatures to get direct White House consideration and official review. It’s unofficial action, but still is a pronounced vehicle to demonstrate public interest and desire for an action.
Find petition information on Vindy.com, on Facebook at Simeon Booker Medal of Freedom, and on Twitter at @sbookermedal.
Awarding Booker such an honor is not just a tribute to him, but to his handful of peer journalists long since deceased.
This band of black journalists had an enormous role in all that the civil-rights movement became and the changes that resulted.
That movement needed two ingredients.
First, it needed national indignation and outrage. Incidents of hate, racism, violence and death had long been the rule of the white South. But the white press never dared to report such atrocities. It was Simeon and the black press that got these stories out – the first major one being the Emmett Till murder.
Secondly, when small protests started at various incidents, they, too, needed coverage to empower more people to rise up.
Again, it was the black press corps.
The dean of the black press corps was Simeon. Myrtle Avenue. South Side. Youngstown, baby.
The Medal of Freedom honors five to 10 or so Americans every year. Started at first by President Harry Truman, then made official by President John F. Kennedy, it has been awarded to many media types over the years – Edward R. Murrow and Paul Harvey are two. So is C-SPAN icon Brian Lamb.
But never in all its years has a Medal of Freedom gone to a member of this prolific and pivotal black press corps whose life-threatening work redefined America.
Simeon lives quietly in D.C. – turning 97 this past August. On social media, his name rises up every week or so in tributes from well-studied citizens who know his work or from those who just discover it.
I’m not the most godly soul, but I do believe. And I believe God put Simeon into this world at the right place and time to help a great country correct itself.
And I believe God kept Simeon around long enough for his country to recognize him and for him to have a chance to say, “You’re welcome.”
Todd Franko is editor of The Vindicator. He likes emails about stories and our newspaper. Email him at email@example.com. He blogs, too, on Vindy.com. Tweet him, too, at @tfranko.