By Sean Barron
Penny Wells’ face beamed as she described the positive ripple effects a trailblazing journalist’s accounts have had in capturing the achievements of those who helped to change history.
“Simeon Booker is a frequently unsung national hero. I think it’s amazing to be here for his memorial service,” Wells said about having been among the several hundred family members, friends and others who attended a 90-minute celebration of Booker’s life Monday morning at Washington National Cathedral.
“He’s an icon for the civil-rights movement, and to think he grew up in Youngstown is something to be proud of.”
Wells, executive director of Mahoning Valley Sojourn to the Past, spoke about Booker, who was born in Baltimore but raised in the Mahoning Valley and attended then-Youngstown College before becoming the Washington Post’s first black reporter in 1952. After about two years at the Post, he founded the Washington bureau for Johnson Publishing Co., the parent company for Jet and Ebony magazines, both of which he also wrote for before retiring in 2007.
Booker, who co-authored the 2013 memoir “Shocking the Conscience: A Reporter’s Account of the Civil Rights Movement,” died Dec. 10 at age 99.
In 1942, Booker earned a degree in English from Virginia Union University in Richmond before launching a career that also included coverage of 10 presidents.
During his illustrious career, Booker reported extensively – sometimes risking his life – on many pivotal moments of the civil-rights era, such as the May 1961 Freedom Rides through the Deep South that tested the voracity of a U.S. Supreme Court decision outlawing segregation in interstate bus travel. Nevertheless, the integrated riders were met with violence at some bus terminals, including in Rock Hill, S.C., where white supremacists beat up several of them, including Georgia Congressman and civil-rights icon John Lewis, who attended Booker’s ceremony.
Booker also was instrumental in delivering to the nation news and disturbing photographs capturing the murder and mutilation of 14-year-old Emmett Till in August 1955 in Tallahatchie County, Miss., an event many historians contend was a catalyst for the civil-rights movement. While covering the trial of the two men accused in the killing, he was among the black reporters who had to sit at card tables in the back of the segregated courtroom.
During his travels through dangerous parts of the South, Booker often dressed as a farmer or a Bible-carrying preacher so as to fit in and evade detection by racists.
In September 1957, he traveled to Little Rock, Ark., to provide detailed accounts of the unrest surrounding the school crisis at Central High School as nine black students, known as the Little Rock Nine, integrated the five-story, all-white school.
“Simeon Booker represents the very best of America,” Lewis said in his tribute to the late reporter. “He emboldened the press and helped to liberate our nation. We are a better people because of this man, who never shied away from a story.”
Lewis also praised Booker for being “a voice for the voiceless” and serving as “a life model for those who seek the truth. We celebrate a life well lived, a life of service.”
Also at the ceremony was U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan of Howland, D-13th, who called Booker’s style of reporting “essential to our democracy” and compared his importance in the movement to that of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Lewis.
Ryan said the press is a powerful tool for shaping and changing people’s perceptions and added he hopes Booker’s story and example will inspire others to enter the journalism field.
Ryan also drew parallels between what he sees as similarities regarding the poor treatment of black people in the Jim Crow South of the 1960s and that of many undocumented immigrants today, including Al Adi, the longtime downtown Youngstown businessman who’s been in the Northeast Ohio Correctional Center since his arrest earlier this month and is facing deportation to his native Jordan.
Rocky Twyman, a civil-rights activist who runs a Washington, D.C.-area public-relations firm, said he ran into Booker at various social gatherings, and that the longtime reporter inspired many young people of color to become journalists. Twyman also echoed Ryan, saying he feels that many things people of goodwill fought against in the segregated South during the ’60s are being revived.
“We need another Simeon Booker to rise up and expose the horrible things happening,” he added.
A Scripture reading was from three passages in the Book of Amos, which talk in part about how some people abhor those who seek justice and speak the truth, yet God implores them to hate evil, love good deeds and work for justice.
“I wanted to fight segregation on the front lines,” Booker said during a recent awards ceremony in his honor. “Segregation was beating down my people. I volunteered for every assignment and suggested more.”
Wells noted that the Sojourn to the Past/Nonviolence Week committee set up the Simeon Booker Award for Courage, a program that is part of the annual Nonviolence Week the first week of October. Proceeds are being used to establish a scholarship in Booker’s name at Youngstown State University.
Donations may be made to the Simeon Booker scholarship at YSU. Gifts for this minority scholarship are matched by the YSU Foundation, to which checks should be made payable at 655 Wick Ave., Youngstown, OH 44502, with “Simeon Booker Scholarship” on the memo line.