Living, breathing Black press history

Simeon Booker

Simeon Booker

I got to see a man last month who had witnessed up-front most of the Civil Rights Movement I’ve only read about.

He was there in Chicago when Emmett Till’s sealed coffin was opened, and in Mississippi when J.W. Milam and Roy Bryant were unfairly acquitted of Till’s 1955 lynching.

He was on one of the buses of the Freedom Rides in 1961, sitting in the back, just a few rows away from getting assaulted by racist Whites.

And he was reporting from Washington, D.C. for decades, covering Black Americans insider Beltway politics. He followed the disappointment in President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s civil rights policy contortions up through the creation of the Congressional Black Caucus, stopping at the beginnings of Obama euphoria.

And now, he’s standing on a Washington, D.C. stage being honored by the National Association of Black Journalists. The NABJ held its 2013 Hall of Fame induction ceremony at the Newseum, the nation’s journalism museum, on Jan. 17, right before the second inauguration of President Barack Obama.

The other honorees included: Sue Simmons, retired New York WNBC-TV anchor; Betty Winston Baye, retired editor writer and columnist of The Courier-Journal (Louisville,

Ky.); Cynthia Tucker, retired Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial writer and columnist for The Atlanta Journal Constitution; and Black press legends Alice Dunnigan (the first Black woman to be credentialed to cover the White House); and Wendell Smith (who covered and protected Jackie Robinson). Dunnigan and Smith are now Ancestors, and Baye, Simmons and Tucker are on the verge of Eldership.

No offense, but I just came to see him. He will turn 95 this August.

He is known as The Man From Jet, Mr. Simeon Booker. He was Ebony/Jet’s Washington Bureau chief for 51 years! He just retired from the post six years ago, in 2007 at the age or 88!

He has a new book. It’s is called Shocking The Conscience: A Reporter’s Account of the Civil Rights Movement, and it’s published by University Press of Mississippi. The Kindle version is available now, and the print version is due in April.

Here’s a bit of what he said to the NABI crowd, after accepting his award:

“According to every economic and social measure, Black Americans have been left behind. far too many of our brothers and sisters are still unable to make it out of poverty.”

At first, I was a little shocked. I assumed somebody who saw this much Black history would just talk about how far we’ve come, and that with a Black president, Black Americans had finally overcome.

But then I remembered what Baye had just said, as she received her award before Booker:

“Speaking truth to power was, and is, my ambition,”

And then I remembered that you can’t be a good reporter if you don’t keep your cars and eyes to the ground to find, and say, that truth.

Asante Sana (thank you), NABJ Hall of Fame winners! And a special thank you. Mr. Booker, for not just being a long-distance runner, but a truth teller, then and now.

Todd Steven Burroughs, Ph.D., a lifelong student of Black media history, is a lecturer in the Communication Studies Department at Morgan State University, a historically Black university in Baltimore. He is co-editor, along with Jared Ball, of the new book A Lie of Reinvention: Correcting Manning Marable’s Malcolm X  and co-author, with Herb Boyd, of the book Civil Rights: Yesterday and Today. He is working on a biography of imprisoned journalist Mumia Abu-Jamal.