The life of Simeon Booker was celebrated Monday at Washington National Cathedral, a beautiful memorial service for an extraordinary journalist. Mr. Booker — and I feel compelled to call him mister — was a capital pioneer, admired by everyone who knew that he played a role in helping to better this nation.
In 1952, he became the first black reporter to work at The Washington Post. “He integrated a whole industry,” said Don Graham, former publisher of the Post whose dad, Philip, was the only white newspaper leader in America who would give Mr. Booker a chance. But that was just one milestone. Simeon Booker went on to brilliantly chronicle the civil rights movement as a reporter for Jet and Ebony magazines, covering protests and murders and otherwise bringing bright light to the struggle for freedom and equality. He smoked Kent cigarettes and wore bow ties. He became famous for his reporting on Emmett Till’s 1955 murder and trial, and it was Mr. Booker’s Jet that published the provocative photos of the 14-year-old’s mutilated body in an open casket.
Every black journalist working today should pause for a moment and thank Simeon Booker. Thank him as an exemplar of the brave black journalists who confronted danger and evaded it while unearthing essential stories in the segregated Deep South of the 1950s and ’60s. A bunch of us came to the National Cathedral just to be there for him, to salute what he meant and to hug each other. Jeff Ballou, Bryan Monroe, Mike Fletcher, Wes Lowery, Courtland Milloy, Paul Delaney, Sarah Glover, Betty Anne Williams, Fred Sweets, Bernie Shaw, Reggie Stuart. Just to name a few. We all owe him something.
Congressman John Lewis, who knows too much about danger, said of Mr. Booker at the memorial service: “He never shied away, ran away from a story.” Lewis saw him during the 1961 Freedom Rides. Saw him in Selma, Alabama. Saw him everywhere. “He did the hard, necessary work to get the story,” Lewis said, noting that without Simeon Booker “the civil rights movement would have been like a bird without wings.”
Back in Mr. Booker’s heyday, Lewis noted, black reporters could be beaten just for holding a camera and a pen. They sometimes wore disguises, dressed as sharecroppers to blend in. They were intrepid and fearless. Today, we have journalists enraged just because they were trolled on Twitter. Mr. Booker died at age 99, cheered for the magnificent life he led and the example he set. I don’t think he was worried about trolls.