In 1955, when Mamie Till Mobley stood over the casket bearing the badly beaten and mutilated body of her 14-year-old son, Emmett Till, Simeon Booker stood by her side as she made the bold and daring decision to have an open-casket funeral. Her decision would prompt a photographer to capture what remained of the murdered teenager — a photograph that would be shown around the world so that America could see what the evil of racism looked like.
Emmett, who was visiting relatives in Mississippi during summer vacation, had been murdered for allegedly whistling at a white woman. Booker covered Emmett’s story for Jet, a Black-owned magazine based in Chicago, including the trial of the two white men accused of murdering teen both of whom were acquitted by an all-white jury. It was this story that defined Booker as a civil rights reporter and launched his 50-year career as a journalist who broke the color barrier at The Washington Post.
Booker died on Dec. 10 at the age of 99. A native of Baltimore and raised in Youngstown, Ohio, Booker’s friends and colleagues gathered for a memorial service this week at the National Cathedral in Northwest. They remembered him as a man who took his craft deeply seriously, who kept his door open to everyone at his Johnson Publishing Company DC headquarters office on Pennsylvania Avenue, Northwest and who opened doors for thousands of Black journalists, including family members, who followed him into many of America’s newsrooms.
“He integrated the newspaper industry,” said Donald Graham, former Washington Post publisher and owner, and the son of Philip Graham for whom Booker worked. “It was a tough time,” Graham said of the newspaper’s first Black employee. “He took insults from supposed colleagues and from the people he was covering. But he wrote stories that made him proud and that made the newspaper proud.”
Congressman John Lewis (D-Ga.), who said he often ran into Booker during his days in the Civil Rights Movement, referred to him as “The Man from Jet” and said, “few lives will more clearly embody the importance of a free press.”
“It was dangerous to be a reporter in the heart of the Deep South with just a pen, a pencil and a camera,” Lewis said. “He was brave and courageous. His work left an unbelievable mark on our nation.”
We are proud of Simeon Booker’s contributions and achievements for which he will be remembered, praised and emulated for years to come.