Shocking the Conscience: A Reporter’s Account of the Civil Rights Movement

  • by David E. Kendall
  • June 5, 2013

David E. Kendall provides a perspective on this memoir chronicling the horror, hope and courage of the civil rights movement.

 

Shocking the Conscience: A Reporter’s Account of the Civil Rights Movement
Simeon Booker with Carol McCabe Booker
University Press of Mississippi
352 pp.

Shocking the Conscience, a memoir by longtime Jet magazine reporter and Washington Bureau Chief Simeon Booker (with his wife Carol McCabe Booker), is a description of both the material Booker reported on and, sometimes, his own journalistic technique. It was Booker who borrowed from the mother of lynching victim Emmett Till the picture of the smiling boy that Jet juxtaposed with an open-casket photo of Till’s mangled face. This display gave nightmares to a generation and was frequently cited by young readers as a formative influence in their deciding later to join the civil rights movement.

Booker, a Neiman Fellow at Harvard in the early 1950s and the first black reporter for The Washington Post, was hired by Jet in August 1953, two years after it was founded. He served from 1956 to 2007 as Washington bureau chief of the magazine whose slogan was, “If it wasn’t in Jet, it didn’t happen.” As autobiography, the book is of only modest interest, since most personal details of Booker’s mid- and later life are elided, but its recounting of his own reporting experiences in the 1950s and early 1960s is dramatic and compelling. It is also frequently leavened with black humor (pun intended), as when he recounts the story of the South Side Chicago preacher who fearfully prays as he contemplates a trip to Mississippi. “‘Lord, please stay with me.’ And the Lord answered, ‘I’ll stay with you, but only as far as Memphis!’”

Booker was frequently there to report nationally, when it was extremely dangerous for a black reporter to be there at all. He was present to cover a critical but now almost forgotten 1955 mass rally for voting rights organized by the regional Negro Leadership Council in the black Delta town of Mound Bayou, Miss., which attracted over 13,000 people. The Council was led by an unsung hero of the early civil rights struggle, Dr. T.R.M. Howard, who death threats later forced out of Mississippi. The rally was peaceful—and completely ignored by the white press—but the vice president of the Leadership Council, the Rev. George Lee, of Belzoni, Miss., was gunned down shortly after returning home—shot twice in the face with a shotgunat point- blank range.

Booker reported: “Called to investigate, Sheriff Ike Shelton took one look at the lifeless body and pronounced the death due to concussion from a traffic accident.” Lee’s widow hired a local black physician to conduct an autopsy, which engendered three consequences: (1) cause of death was determined to be gunshot wounds; (2) the physician, the first black to vote in Indianola in 50 years, fled the state with his family under threat of death; and (3) the autopsy photos were published on the front page of a small Little Rock, Ark., black newspaper. The sheriff opined that the strait-laced minister “was a ‘ladies man’ who had probably been killed by a rival,” the Mississippi governor’s spokesman announced that the governor “pays no attention to NAACP requests” for an investigation of a Negro’s murder, and Mrs. Lee held an open-casket funeral, to show her husband’s grievous injuries. Booker recalls: “Shaken but also incensed … I vowed my coverage of the next lynching would make it harder for them to ignore.” He did not have to wait long.

In August 1955, 14-year-old Emmett Till boarded the City of New Orleans train to spend a few weeks with his uncle in Tallahatchie County, Miss. His mother, Mamie Till Bradley, who had been born in Mississippi, travelling north to Chicago in the Great Migration after World War I, drilled her son in what she called the “code of survival” for Negroes in Mississippi: “Speak only when spoken to. Always put a ‘handle’ on your answer: not just ‘Yes,’ but ‘Yes, sir,’ or ‘Yes, ma’am.’ … [G]et off the sidewalk and step into the street if necessary when a white person is approaching. Lower your head; avoid eye contact.” This drill was not enough. At a general store in Money, Miss., young Till exchanged words with the 20-year-old white female cashier. A stutter left by Till’s early bout with polio caused him to blow out words through pursed lips, which sometimes caused a whistling sound. There is disagreement on what was actually said and what, if any, kind of whistle Till made.

Booker, a reporter’s reporter, sets out the differing accounts by various witnesses, and adds, “One thing there is no disagreement about is that whatever happened, it did not justify what Roy Bryant [the cashier’s husband] and his half-brother later set out to do about it.” A few nights later, Bryant and his half-brother, accompanied by two local blacks, abducted, tortured and killed Till, whose body surfaced three days later in the Tallahatchie River, weighted down with a heavy cotton gin fan and barbed wire. In order to claim her son’s body, Bradley had to sign paperwork agreeing that the casket would not be opened. The casket was locked, and the seal of the State of Mississippi was embossed on it, to make sure the state order was followed. Back in Chicago, however, Bradley decided to have an open-casket funeral, and for four days, tens of thousands of people filed by to see the mutilated remains: “Let the world see what they did to my boy. … Let them see what I’ve seen.”

Booker, who had spent many hours with Till’s family, let the wider world see, publishing the gargoyle casket photos in the September 15, 1955, issue of Jet and contrasting them with an earlier picture of Till in a white shirt and tie. This photographic juxtaposition, reprinted in Shocking the Conscience, has lost none of its horrific power.

Jet’s coverage caused a sensation in the black community, but Booker’s work was only beginning. He repeatedly returned to Mississippi at great personal risk to cover the trial of Bryant and his half-brother. Told by the sheriff, “I ain’t having no nigger reporters in my courtroom,” Booker appealed to the judge, who overruled the sheriff but put him along a side wall where it was difficult to hear the testimony. The trial began quickly, before an unsurprisingly all-white jury. While Tallahatchie County was 60 percent black, no blacks were registered to vote, so none were on the jury rolls.

Hardly a neutral observer, Booker spent time in the evenings searching for prosecution witnesses, most of whom had been intimidated into silence. He admits to having mixed motives: “If this turned out to be the evidence the State needed, it would be the hottest story of the trial.” Two witnesses were found, but they would testify only on the promise of safe passage to Chicago. Both testified to seeing Till in the back of a defendant’s pick-up truck and to hearing screams from a shed after the truck was parked. Both witnesses fled to Chicago after testifying, one suffering a nervous breakdown there. After the trial, Booker discovered the sheriff had locked up two other witnesses in the county jail under aliases to prevent them from testifying.

The search for witnesses was scary and dangerous. At one point, Booker and his photographer got lost and were stopped on a country road by five armed and angry whites (“Stop, ya damn niggers.”). Booker explained they were reporters but he suffered anguished moments when the whites searched his car—while he had warned his photographer not to carry a pistol, he feared this order had been disobeyed. After Booker and his photographer were allowed to drive away, Booker discovered that the photographer had hidden a pistol in a suitcase that the gunmen had not found: “In fact, [my photographer] never stopped packing a gun when he went into the South. … he … was prepared to use it if anyone came to get him in the middle of the night—a legacy, undoubtedly, of the kinds of stories we were covering.”

In closing arguments in the Till case, the defense lawyers asserted their confidence “that every last Anglo-Saxon one of you has the courage to free these men, adding that “your forefathers will turn over in their graves” if the defendants were convicted. The defendants were acquitted after the jury deliberated for an hour. A year later, protected from retrial by the double jeopardy clause of the Bill of Rights, they gave a full confession of the murder to Look magazine.

 

Emmett Till
Emmett Till

Booker’s eyewitness accounts were carefully
observed and gripping. He covered every phase of the violent integration of
Little Rock’s Central High School in 1957 by nine black students. He noted that black soldiers were
pulled out of the 101st Airborne unit sent to ensure order, that the
indomitable Little Rock civil rights leader Daisy Bates lived in constant
danger (“fifty attacks in two years, including four bombings, gunfire, and
rocks hurled through the picture window” of her house— yet the police
repeatedly refused protection), and that one of the nine was expelled from
Central High for calling one of her taunters “white trash.” He also observed that “the unusual
thing about the battle of Little Rock was the general lack of support of the
black clergy, unlike their brothers of the cloth in Montgomery, Ala., who had
joined together in support of the ongoing bus boycott in that city.” At a
school board hearing, when Bates was asked to select only “light Negroes” to integrate Central High,
she responded, “We’ve got 215 kids. You can take the cream of the crop, or you
can take them all,” making clear there would be no selection based on skin tone.

 

Booker rode the bus for the first of the Freedom Rides in 1961, an attempt to desegregate interstate travel facilities in the Deep South. He watched as the integrated group encountered violence, which began in Anniston, Ala., where an angry mob was waiting, with no police visible anywhere. The driver ordered the black Freedom riders out of the front seats and they refused, at which point members of the mob crowded onto the bus and beat both black and white Freedom Riders senseless. Booker watched from the back of the bus: “I poked a small hole in the newspaper … and pretended to read, watching the aftermath of the blood bath from my back seat through the gap in the front page, afraid the toughs would beat potential witnesses senseless as well.” His firsthand reporting of what he witnessed helped awaken the rest of the country to the virulent racism civil rights activists faced.

Booker documented a dispiriting history of segregationist white political leadership that led inevitably to violence, from Governor Faubus’ intransigent opposition to high school integration in 1957 Little Rock, to Governor Barnett’s inflammatory opposition to the integration of the University of Mississippi in 1962, to Birmingham police commissioner Eugene “Bull” Connor’s refusing police protection to the Freedom Riders in the city’s bus station. But he also notes the (few) cases where decisive and courageous political leadership stymied violence. The Freedom Riders were not threatened in Atlanta after Mayor William B. Hartsfield issued a police alert and a warning “that included the observation that ‘Robert E. Lee wouldn’t even spit on’ the segregationist rabble-rousers he’d ordered the police to crack down on.” There was no violence when Clemson University was integrated in the same academic year as Ole Miss because South Carolina’s governor, Donald Russell, made a massive effort to prevent any trouble and because Clemson’s president warned that any Clemsonite guilty of disorderly conduct would be expelled.

Ever the dutiful reporter, Booker called events as he saw them. In November1962, he took his sons to a football game between a predominantly black and a predominantly white high school in Washington, D.C. A huge brawl erupted after the game. In an era of white on black racial violence, this, to Booker’s eyes, was “a race riot, black against white,” and when the local newspapers printed reports that in his view obscured what had happened, he wrote a letter, published in all three D.C. daily newspapers, which described what in fact he had seen happen. Predictably, he was then vilified as a “white Negro bastard,” an “Uncle Tom,” and worse.

One of the great achievements of Shocking the Conscience is its celebration and vivid depiction of lesser-known heroes of the modern struggle for civil rights, such as Dr. T.R.M. Howard, Mamie Till Bradley and Daisy Bates. Attacked by a mob outside Little Rock’s Central High in 1957, Booker and other black reporters fled, but one, L. Alex Wilson, a former Marine, refused to run, reacted passively, and was badly beaten: “Wilson explained why he didn’t flee like the rest of us. He had done that once before when chased by the Klan, and the humiliation that haunted him after that episode made him determined he would never run again.” Wilson later died of his injuries.

One thread that runs through the book is Booker’s (and Jet’s) uneasy relationship with the FBI. Clearly, in part it was mutual back-scratching. Jet featured the recruitment and training of black FBI agents in the 1950s, and Booker was unapologetic: the magazine “show[ed] black men on the right side of badges and guns on the FBI firing range—and if that stirred some career aspirations on the part of any young black men, then it was all well and good. Just as it was all well and good if the photos of black agents upset the worldview of racist crackers.” Before boarding the bus in 1961 for the first of the Freedom Rides, Booker phoned FBI Deputy Director Cartha DeLoach at home (Booker had earlier received the number “based … on the good working relationship Jet had” with the FBI). Booker told DeLoach that there was likely to be trouble and that the people engaged in nonviolent protest needed to be protected. The FBI, however, had consistently steered far away from civil rights violence, declining to investigate the Till case and, later, the 1963 Birmingham church bombing on the ground that these were merely local crimes. Jet did carry a number of articles critical of the FBI’s passivity, and it punched back particularly hard when J. Edgar Hoover called Martin Luther King “the most notorious liar in the country” in December 1964.

Booker also makes clear how Red Scare tactics were often used, by the FBI and others, to isolate and deprecate the cause of civil rights. In the Eisenhower Library, he discovers a memo that the President received from a top advisor advising him to ignore a request for help from Emmett Till’s mother: “While it cannot be said openly, the FBI had definite knowledge that Mrs. Bradley permitted herself to be the instrument of the Communist party, which seized upon the case as a cause célèbre …” The advisor concludes it was therefore “inadvisable to make a courteous reply,” and Bradley received no response to her letter. Booker does, however, have a response to the White House decision: “Even today, all these years later, I can’t find the words to describe how cold, myopic, and even delusional the thinking of these men must have been …”*

Booker’s memoir is an uneven read. Much of the coverage after 1965 is second hand and too often declines into a tedious catalogue of political and entertainment figures who Booker has encountered. But the first-hand reporting that Booker recounts (the bulk of the book) is riveting—dramatic, carefully observed, blisteringly funny at times—a chronicle of fear, bravery and hope that all too frequently “shocks the conscience.”

As a college student in 1964 and 1965, David E. Kendall spent his summers working in Mississippi trying to register black voters. After law school, he worked five years for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund Inc., which had gotten him out of jail in Mississippi, before joining the Washington, D.C., law firm of Williams & Connolly LLP in 1978.

* With the 2008 and 2012 Presidential elections clearly in mind, Booker reprints (tongue firmly in cheek) a picture of the cover of the 1963 memoir by Eisenhower’s sole black White House aide, E. Frederick Morrow, entitled Black Man in the White House.

 

comments powered by Disqus