Academic journal article Southern Quarterly

We Were All Pioneers: A Discussion with Simeon Booker

Academic journal article Southern Quarterly

We Were All Pioneers: A Discussion with Simeon Booker

Article excerpt

Esteemed African American journalist, writer and activist Simeon Booker was bom in Baltimore in 1918 and spent his formative years in Youngstown, Ohio. His professional journalism career is indelibly linked with Jet magazine and Johnson Publishing Company, where he served as the company's Washington, DC, Bureau Chief for over half a century. Following his retirement in 2007, Simeon and his wife Carol collaborated to write his widely praised retrospective Shocking the Conscience, which was published in 2013.'

Booker began his career in journalism by writing stories for the Youngstown Vindicator while still in high school. He went on to contribute to members of the Afro-American Newspapers chain as an English major at Virginia Union University. In 1950 he was awarded a prestigious Nieman Fellowship at Harvard University before becoming the first black staff reporter at the Washington Post. Booker left the Post in 1953 to join Johnson Publishing Company, publisher of Ebony and Jet magazines. His coverage of Emmett Till's murder in 1955 and the subsequent trial of the men accused of his killing received national acclaim. Booker was one of a handful of journalists who accompanied activists from the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) on the Freedom Rides of 1961. When the first bus was bombed outside of Anniston, AL, and riders on the second bus were beaten unconscious, Booker called Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy to warn that without federal intervention the riders would never make it out of the South alive. He would go on to become one of the most influential black journalists of the twentieth century, covering every presidential election since the Eisenhower administration until his retirement in 2007.

Described in Jet magazine as the "Jackie Robinson of Journalism," Booker's contributions to American newspaper and magazine reporting throughout his long career have been recognized through multiple prizes and accolades.2 In 1982, he became the first African American recipient of the National Press Club's Fourth Estate Award for lifetime contributions to the field of journalism, and in 1999 he was honored with the Washington Association of Black Journalists Lifetime Achievement Award and the Master Communicators Award from the National Black Media Coalition. Following his retirement, Booker was inducted into the National Association of Black Journalists Hall of Fame. In addition to his output as a journalist, Booker has written a number of books, including a treatise on the significance of the ongoing civil rights struggle titled Black Man s America published in 1964,3 and more recently, an eyewitness account as a reporter who covered every major battle of the civil rights movement titled Shocking the Conscience.

In this interview, Booker reflects on his experiences as a black journalist in the 1950s and 1960s, the role of the black press, and magazines such as Jet in giving form and focus to civil rights activism. He illustrates how broader divisions in literary and media representations of civil rights activism and protest played out on a local level and how black journalists and newspapermen balanced tensions between black literary production and activist sentiment. The interview also explores Booker's relationship with other major black journalists and writers of the time, how he conceptualizes his own contributions to black literary production, and the role the memory and legacy of the movement years continues to play in the black literary tradition. We also touch on the recent significance of Jet ending its print run and moving to an all-digital format, and how this can be linked to broader implications for the future of the black press in a post-Obama world.

University of Manchester, England

JW: Thank you for taking the time to share your personal recollections with the readers of The Southern Quarterly, Simeon. I want to begin by asking you broadly about the role of the black press in the civil rights struggle. …

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