In Memoriam: Life of Simeon Booker Jr

Black Press Loses its Dean Who Got His Start at the AFRO

by: Hamil Harris Special to the AFRO
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Simeon Saunders Booker Jr. was a courageous and awarding winning journalist, who put his life on the line to tell the story of Black America during the Civil Rights Movement.   He died Dec. 10 in Solomon, Md.  at the age of 99.

A memorial service for Booker is scheduled to take place on Jan. 29 for 10 a.m. at the Washington National Cathedral in Northwest D.C.

Simeon Booker, 1957. (AFRO file photo)

Booker began his career with the Black Press as a reporter for the Afro-American Newspapers during the mid 1930s to the late 1940s. He was a journalistic pioneer, who in 1952, became the first Black staff writer at the Washington Post But, concerned more about improving the status of Black people than being first, he returned to the Black Press as the Washington Bureau Chief of Chicago-based Johnson Publishing Company Jet and Ebony magazines.

Booker was there for many historic moments, covering the “Freedom Riders” through Anniston, Ala.  in 1961 to  a bloody Sunday morning in 1964 when protesters were beaten by police as they crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge.

He wrote that he was “never prouder of Jet’s role in any story” than in 1961, when he helped cover a Freedom Ride from Washington, D.C. to New Orleans.

Booker had extensive history in news coverage, including being a sports news writer for the Youngtown Vindicator, where he wrote about Negro League baseball teams. In 1950, he received the Nieman Fellowship for Journalism at Harvard University.  After one year at Harvard, Booker became the first full-time Black reporter at the Washington Post.

In 1955, Booker covered the Emmett Till murder and trial for Jet, where he documented one of the most compelling scenes of the Civil Rights Movement in news history.

“Her face wet with tears, she leaned over the body, just removed from a rubber bag in a Chicago funeral home, and cried out, ‘Darling, you have not died in vain. Your life has been sacrificed for something,’ Booker wrote about the moment when Mamie Till stood in a Chicago funeral home looking down at the mangled body of her child, Emmett Till.

From writing about ten sitting US presidents to traveling to Southeast Asia to report on the Vietnam War, Booker was a journalist like no other. He also had a colorful presence as he favored big bow ties and fashionable suits.

Booker was called the “Dean of the Black Press” because he covered every presidential election since 1953. He also authored two books: “Shocking the Conscience: A Reporter’s Account of the Civil Rights Movement” and “Black Man’s America.”

Booker was born in Baltimore on Aug. 27, 1918. His father was a Baptist minister and director of a YMCA. The family later moved to Youngstown, Ohio, where his father opened another YMCA.

“From an early age, I knew I wanted to be a writer,” Booker told the Vindicator. “Teaching and preaching were the best advances for Blacks at the time. But I wanted to write.”

Booker’s accomplishments include, the National Press Club’s Fourth Estate Award (1982), an award given to an individual who has achieved distinction for a lifetime of contributions to American journalism; elected president of the Capitol Press Club (1956); inducted into Hall of Fame of the Washington Chapter of Sigma Delta Chi (1984); Master Communicators Award, National Black Media Coalition (1998); Phoenix Award, Congressional Black Caucus Foundation (2010); inducted into the Hall of Fame of the National Association of Black Journalists (2013); and the George Polk Award in journalism, an award that recognize reporting across all media.

Booker earned an English degree in 1942 from Virginia Union University in Richmond.  Shortly after Booker left the AFRO, he joined the Cleveland Call and Post, another Black publication, where he received a Newspaper Guild Award for a series covering slum housing.

Booker was married twice. His first marriage with Thelma Cunningham ended in divorce. He later married Carol McCabe. He was married to McCabe for 44 years.

Booker is survived by his wife; three children: Simeon Booker III, Theresa Booker; and Theodore Booker; and several grandchildren. His son, Abdul Wali Muhammad (also known as James Booker), who was editor in chief of the Nation of Islam’s newspaper, the {Final Call}, died in 1991 at the age of 37.

In February, 15 US representatives, including Ohio Reps. Tim Ryan (D), Dave Joyce (R) and Marcia Fudge (D) introduced bipartisan legislation to award the Congressional Gold Medal to Booker in recognition of his achievements in the field of journalism.  The bill was referred to the House Committee on Financial Services.

“I couldn’t think of a more worthy American than Simeon Booker to be awarded Congress’s highest honor, the Congressional Gold Medal. His long and illustrious career in journalism and his work to advance the civil rights movement has forever changed our nation for the better,” said Rep. Ryan in a statement. “Simeon Booker has devoted his life’s work to breaking barriers and changing the hearts and minds of all those he touched through his writing. He is a true American hero.”

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