Shocking the Conscience, Simeon Booker with Carol McCabe Booker. Jackson, MI: University Press of Mississippi, 2013.
Summary: A memoir of Simeon Booker’s career as a reporter, much of it during the height of the Civil Rights movement from the murder of Emmett Till to the busing battles of the 1970’s and beyond.
I became interested in Simeon Booker because both of us grew up in Youngstown, Ohio. Booker moved there as a child from Baltimore, Maryland, his father the first director of the Black YMCA in Youngstown and later a pastor on Youngstown’s South side. Other than a poem in the Vindicator and his early writing experience for the Buckeye Review (the Black newspaper in Youngstown), there is little here about his time in Youngstown.
He went away to college when he encountered discrimination at Youngstown College. Following stints at Black newspapers in Baltimore and Cleveland, he qualified for a Nieman fellowship at Harvard and was hired as the first Black reporter at the Washington Post. After a few years of lackluster assignments, he was recruited to open the Washington bureau for Johnson publications, publisher of Ebony and the weekly news digest Jet. Booker occupied this post from 1956 until his retirement in 2007.
Much of the book chronicles his on-the-ground coverage of decisive moments of the Civil Rights movement. We ride on the edge of the seat with him and his photographer, trying to pass as Black ministers with a Bible on their seat to cover early Civil Rights gatherings in the deep South. We ache with him as he writes the stories of the murder and open casket funeral of Emmett Till and then sweat through the trial at the small table given “Negro” press until the acquittal of Till’s murderers. He covers the story of the Little Rock Nine who attempt integrate Central High School. Later he describes the confrontation at the Edmund Pettus Bridge and the eventual march to Montgomery, Alabama
Perhaps the most harrowing account was his travel on one of two busses ridden by Freedom Riders testing the enforcement of laws integrating interstate travel in the South. He describes the worries he has for passengers on the other bus when it was firebombed and narrates the beating of passengers on his bus while the bus driver and police stay away. Somehow, he managed to get a call through to Bobby Kennedy, who he had become friends with and who invited him to call if he needed help. That call got the Riders out of trouble.
He gives an illuminating account of his travels in Vietnam, where he covered the treatment of Blacks in the military and the disproportionate numbers in the thick of the fighting. He went through fire fights, and a helicopter flight with William Westmoreland with rifle rounds pinging off the skin of the helicopter, describing it as feeling safer than driving into the deep South.
The other part of his narrative is his relationships with different presidents, from Eisenhower to Obama. He describes the promising talk and disappointing actions of Eisenhower, the promise of Kennedy, with increased access and the initiation of Civil Rights legislation accomplished under Lyndon Johnson, a southern Democrat. a cooler relationship with Richard Nixon, the advances under Carter in appointing Black judges to the bench and to many other positions. He has less to say about the Reagan, Bush, Clinton, and Bush years. In fact the period from Nixon to Obama is covered in about 25 pages, with a portion dedicated to the Congressional Black Caucus.
Most of the book is focused on about a fifteen year period from the early 1950’s to the late 1960’s. On the one hand, there is so much to which Booker was a witness in these years and his first hand narrative of many of these events fills out other histories of them I have read. Yet it seems so much more could have been told of the ensuing years and both the advances for Blacks and the shifts in the Republican party’s strength among white Southern voters leading to our current political divisions. One has the feeling that this might have been part of a two volume work were it not for Booker’s passing in 2017, a few years after its publication.
Nevertheless, Booker was an amazing journalist. His publisher said he never had to correct or retract a story by Booker, even under the duress of someone like Lyndon Johnson. He established high standards for journalism, not just Black journalism, while focusing on the issues and stories that concerned Black people. His career underscores the value of a free press, and the courage journalists have always shown to “get the story.” This is not a narrative of bombastic rhetoric but comes across as the quiet, deliberate unfolding of the larger story of which all those stories were a part, and Booker’s own witness to a critical portion of our nation’s history, when the Civil Rights movement “shocked the conscience” of the nation.