Jet was a pocket-sized news magazine that could be found in barber shops, beauty salons, doctors’ and dentists’ offices in the Black community and in many black homes. In the early 1950’s, it chronicled the beginnings of the Civil Rights movement, culminating in an article in 1955 showing the brutally beaten and mutilated body of 14 year old Emmett Till, and a series of articles covering his open-casket funeral, his mother’s determination to awaken the nation’s conscience, and the subsequent trial and acquittal of his murderers in the Jim Crow South.
The reporter responsible for these articles, perhaps some of the most notable journalism of this era, was Simeon Booker. And Simeon Booker grew up in Youngstown. He was actually born in Baltimore, Maryland in 1918 and moved to Youngstown at age 5. His father helped establish the YMCA for blacks on West Federal Street and later served as a Baptist minister in the city. As an elementary student at Covington Elementary, he composed a poem that appeared in The Vindicator:
“Spring is coming, this I know, for the robin told me so. Flowers and grass are going to grow. Winter goes with ice and snow.”
That was the beginning of his writing career. There is some dispute of sources, one claiming him for The Rayen School, and the other as a graduate of South High School. Covington is on the North side. Later on, he lived on Myrtle, on the South side. In his memoir, he only mentions graduating from high school, so I’ve not been able to confirm which one! He enrolled at Youngstown College but was denied an activity card given to white students. He transferred to Virginia Union University, from which he graduated in 1942. He started writing for the Afro-American in Baltimore, a job obtained through family friends, and then moved back to Ohio in 1945 to write for the Call and Post in Cleveland. In 1950, he received a prestigious Nieman Fellowship at Harvard in 1950. The following year he became the first Black reporter for the Washington Post.
He was only assigned general news stories at the Post and decided to leave in 1954 to start the Washington bureau of Jet and Ebony magazines, heading up Johnson Publishing Company’s civil rights coverage. It was in the following year that he covered the Emmett Till story. He covered the integration of Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1957. In 1961, he rode with the Freedom Riders through the deep South. When their bus was fire-bombed, he worked with Attorney General Robert Kennedy to arrange their evacuation. In 1964, his book, Black Man’s America, made the case for the ongoing civil rights movement. In the mid-1960’s, he interviewed General William Westmoreland on the Vietnam war.
He also covered Washington, including every president from Eisenhower through George W. Bush, developments in Congress, and strategies of civil rights leaders. He led the Washington Bureau until his retirement in 2007. In 2013, he was inducted into the Hall of Fame of the National Association of Black Journalists. Collaborating with his wife Carol McCabe Booker, he published his memoir Shocking the Conscience. That December, he spoke at Youngstown State’s commencement and was awarded an honorary doctorate. In 2016, the Simeon Booker Award for Courage was established as part of Ohio’s Non-Violence Week each October.
Simeon Booker died at age 99 on December 10, 2017 in Solomons, Maryland. On January 29, 2018, he was honored in a memorial service at the Washington National Cathedral. He was considered the dean of black journalists. His dedicated and courageous life in journalism is something all of us can be proud of, and his unrelenting pursuit of civil rights stands as a challenge to all of us.
To read other posts in the Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown series, just click “On Youngstown.” Enjoy!