By Erick Johnson, Chicago Crusader
Simeon Booker, a pioneering Black journalist who as a reporter for Ebony and Jet magazines, covered the Emmett Till murder case with groundbreaking photographs of the teenager’s body, died Sunday, Dec. 10, after an illustrious career with the Black Press. He was 99.
His wife, Carol Booker, told the Washington Post that her husband had been hospitalized recently with pneumonia.
During his career, Booker was honored several times by the National Newspaper Publishers Association for his significant contributions to the Black Press.
“The Black Press has lost a true giant in journalism,” said Dorothy R. Leavell, chairman of the NNPA. “Simeon Booker went the distance in telling the stories that were not reported in white newspapers. His groundbreaking reporting woke up the world with the shocking realities of racism and hate. He truly was a journalist who helped establish the Black Press as a powerful advocate for truth and equality.”
Mr. Booker, along with another pioneering Black journalist, Chicago Defender’s Ethel Payne was one of few members of the Black Press to be stationed in the nation’s capitol to report on racial problems in the South. His was another link to the Till case who died this year. In September, Simeon Wright, an eyewitness and cousin who was with Till when he was kidnapped, died after living out his final years in Chicago.
Mr. Booker started his career in Baltimore, where he wrote stories for the Afro-American newspaper while in high school. In 1945, he wrote for another Black newspaper, the Cleveland Call and Post.
In 1952, Mr. Booker became the Washington Post’s first Black reporter, covering general news. He lasted just two years there after experiencing racism in the newsroom and in the field. Booker described his short time at the Post as a “social experiment.”
In 1954, Booker became Jet magazine’s chief columnist and Washington Bureau Chief for the Johnson Publishing Company in Chicago. The following year, he would cover a case that would establish him as a preeminent voice of Black America.
It was the case of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old boy from Chicago who was brutally murdered by two white men in Money, Mississippi in 1955. In the Deep South where lynchings and segregation were part of every day, Till was accused of whistling at a white woman in a grocery store. The men J.W. Milam and Roy Bryant kidnapped Till in the early hours of August 28, 1955 and took him to a shed where they brutally beat him before shooting him the head. They then threw his body in the Tallahatchie River with a cotton gin fan wired around his neck. After his body was discovered, Till’s mother, Mamie Till-Mobley rejected advice from the funeral home and held an open-casket funeral in Chicago to show the world what the men did to her son. Milam and Roy were acquitted on charges of murder by an all-white jury in a trial that lasted only an hour. The men later confessed to the murder in Look magazine. The case helped spark the Civil Rights Movement.
Booker took great risks as he reported from Mississippi to give millions of Black readers across the country a string of the stories about Till’s murder. White major daily newspapers did not often report stories on the murders and lynchings of Black people. When Jet magazine ran Booker’s first story on the Till case, it also published a photograph of the boy’s mutilated face. Weeks later, The Chicago Defender and news organizations around the world followed suit.
According to the New York Times, Mr. Booker said when he arrived in Mississippi, several white men in a car forced him and a staff member to stop. Booker said after Roy and Milam were acquitted, they quickly hopped on a flight to Memphis in fear of their lives.
Booker went on to become the Washington Bureau Chief of Ebony and Jet. As the Civil Rights Movement progressed, he covered protests and sit ins at segregated diners and restaurants.
In 1961, Booker helped cover a Freedom Ride from Washington to New Orleans, when a bus was bombed in Anniston, Ala. Thugs stormed Booker’s bus and beat the protesters. In Birmingham, Ala., protestors were beaten again by waiting Ku Klux Klansmen.
Booker spent 65 years with Ebony and Jet. He retired in 2007 after covering 10 presidents, the Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War. He was born in Baltimore on August 27, 1918 to a Baptist minister. He graduated from Virginia Union University in 1942 with a degree in English.
In 2013, Booker was inducted into the National Association of Black Journalists’ Hall of Fame in 2013.
In 1950, after several previous applications, he received a prestigious Nieman Foundation Fellowship for Journalism at Harvard University. In 2016, he received a career George Polk Award in Journalism.