I’m glad I was able to make the acquaintance of one Simeon Saunders Booker Jr.
All the “old heads” and political pros I learned from — Louis E. Martin, Ofield Dukes, Rep. Parren J. Mitchell — called him “Simeon.” I usually addressed him as “Booker,” and referred to him to others as “Mr. Booker.” For nearly half a century, if you were a Black politician or a political wannabe in Washington, you knew Simeon Booker.
His full-page “Ticker Tape” column in Jet magazine was must-read material, second only to the magazine’s “Beauty of the Week” photo.
Booker joined his ancestors on Dec. 10, 2017, at the ripe old age of 99.
The Washington Ticker Tape-phase of Booker’s career, when he was the “capo di tutti capi” — the boss of all bosses — of Black politics, came after a stellar role as a journalist without peer.
He was the first Black reporter hired by one of the major corporate-owned newspapers, The Washington Post.
At his memorial service at the Washington National Cathedral, Donald Graham, former publisher of The Post, told the memorial service that in 1951, after he became the second recipient of a prestigious Nieman Fellowship, Booker wrote letters to 40 of what he described as “White newspapers,” asking for a job. Only one publisher, Phillip Graham — Donald’s father — even interviewed the Black candidate, and his career as a trailblazer continued and soared when he agreed to work for the newspaper, even though it meant that he had to endure abuse and disrespect on a daily basis from his colleagues in the newsroom.
He flew on, becoming a chronicler of the civil rights movement. For Johnson Publishing Co.’s Jet and Ebony magazines, he covered the Deep South, often conspicuously carrying a Bible, so some would-be hostile White officials would think he was a pastor.
His biggest story, and one that is emblazoned in our collective consciousness among the horrors which befell Black people in the middle of the 20th century, was the murder of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old black boy from Chicago who was lynched and disfigured because he allegedly wolf-whistled at a White woman.
Booker’s access to Emmett’s mother, Mamie Till Mobley, made for one of the most spectacular incidents in the shocking cruelty visited on the race. Mobley decided to have no cosmetic changes to her son’s mutilated corpse, and the pictures of his disfigured body in the open casket at the funeral, are iconic.
After a spectacular history covering the civil rights movement in the South, John H. Johnson had the wisdom to want a Washington bureau for his news magazines. His choice was perfect for the job: Simeon Booker, a seasoned Washington reporter. But Booker came with a price-tag attached, and the negotiation was not over his salary.
He told me once, that before he agreed to take the job as Washington Bureau Chief, he had to have “first class everything,” as far as news offices were concerned. He insisted that Mr. Johnson hire a supporting staff, and that the office be centrally located in Washington’s federal corridor, and so it was: at 1776 Pennsylvania Avenue, just a block or so from The White House at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
So, through the Johnson, Nixon, Ford and Carter administrations, Booker’s career blossomed anew. He became a “go-to-guy” for black politics, and he was a mentor to journalists young and old. In the Johnson Publishing office, when I came to town during the presidency of Jimmy Carter, Booker’s staff included E. Fannie Granton, journalist, and the office glue; Maurice Sorrell, a steady photographer, and social force in his own right; and “cub reporter” Roy Betts, fresh out of college.
Booker was also mentor to journalists and politicians far from those in his employ. He advised me on many things. One piece of advice stuck with me. “Get into radio young man,” he told me more than once. “Get into radio young man. It’s the medium of the future. It’s the medium of Africa.”
He was correct of course, and I’ve never regretted, not one moment I’ve spent following his advice, stumbling around the airwaves of non-commercial Pacifica Radio, NPR, Christian Science Monitor Radio, Soundprint, and others.
Thank you Simeon Booker, for all you did for everybody, and for the tiny bit you did just for me.