Shocking the Conscience
Simeon Booker is a lucky man. He has lived to enjoy the spoils of victory.
On the sandy shores of the Chesapeake at Cove Point in southern Calvert County, the 94-year-old has enjoyed 30 years of the best the Bay has to offer. He has basked in water just outside his cottage windows, miles of beach walking, fishing, the solace of nature, the company of neighbors and friends … even the luxury of a new septic system supported in part by the Bay Restoration Fund.
Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are the rewards Booker gained from America’s mid-20th century struggle to win for African Americans the civil rights guaranteed by our Constitution. On the Bay he lives in comfort and satisfaction, and in Washington he gained renown, respect and the recognition of diplomats and presidents.
In the tranquility of retirement, Booker has recollected the struggle as he saw it and waged it over the half-century he reported for Jet magazine, the pocket-sized bible of the movement.
“If it wasn’t in Jet, it didn’t happen. And if it did happen, Jet would tell you the truth about it.” That, Booker writes, was the standing of his magazine, and its sister publication Ebony, across black America.
Much of the truth we read in Shocking the Conscience, Booker’s just-published account of front-line witness, was bloody and brutal. Written with his wife of 40 years, Carol McCabe Booker, the 334-page book is published by the University of Mississippi Press.
Mississippi is where Booker’s story begins, and where, he thanks god, he will never have to go again. He survived. Many who lived or traveled there did not.
Two years into his career at Jet, Booker made his first trip to Mississippi. In April of 1955, the Baltimore-born son of generations of Negro leaders was following his dream. After college and a few years working for regional black papers he’d gone to Harvard as a mid-career Neiman Fellow, the second black to win that “life-changing” honor. Next came two years as The Washington Post’s first black reporter. The segregation of the city and newsroom stifled him. At Jet he would soar.
Civil Rights was the story of the era, and Booker made it his beat.
“Nothing in either my upbringing or training prepared me for what I encountered.” With those words, Booker opens his up-close and personal story of the many-fronted war for civil rights.
If you, like me, think you know anything about how today’s measure of racial equality was achieved, you’ll stand corrected as you read this book. You had to be there, as the white press wasn’t until many years into the struggle. Or you had to read Jet.
Booker’s narrative is as vivid with hair-on-end fear and danger at every turn as the best novels of social change. The stakes in this war fought on our own land were as high as in any struggle for justice and independence — and the dangers as real.
“When I started,” Booker told me as we spoke in the comfort of his living room, “blacks did not have anything. It was like slavery had just ended. Didn’t have voting rights.”
Voting rights is the battleground where Shocking the Conscience begins. Booker and photographer David Jackson take you on their first harrowing journey. They travel by night, trying to “blend in” with a Bible always visible in their beat-up rental car.
Energized by the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court desegregation decision won by Baltimorean Thurgood Marshall a year earlier, the black town of Mound Bayou was holding a massive rally for voting rights. The gathering of 13,000 Negros energized by defiant speakers set off an explosive counter-reaction.
By Chapter 3, the killing begins. The first to fall is the Rev. George Washington Lee, “a prominent Civil Rights leader on the Klan’s death list” and speaker at the rally. The newspaper headline reproduced in Booker’s books reports “preacher’s mouth shot off.”
Next come the kidnapping, torture and lynching of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old Chicago boy in the wrong place at the wrong time. Summering with family in Mound Bayou, the stuttering teen is believed to have whistled at a white woman. After his body is finally recovered from a river, his mother defies the establishment and opens the coffin at his funeral in Chicago so the world can “see what I saw.”
Trials without justice follow as the war widens. As front-line witness, Booker chronicles the Battle of Little Rock, where state public schools shut down after nine black teens integrate Central High … the Freedom Rides to integrate interstate commerce, with bloody bus station beatings and burnings … the voting rights “freedom drive” in Alabama, bloody even after the passage of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964 … You see the battles and meet the legendary soldiers and generals, names you know, like Medgar Evers and Martin Luther King Jr., and names you wish you’d known.
In all these battles, the federal government is pitted, more or less reluctantly, against recalcitrant southern states defying the law of the land. When Booker moves to Washington, D.C., as Washington bureau chief for Jet, the narrative broadens to encompass national policy and personae. Booker introduces us to Eisenhower, Nixon, the Kennedy brothers, Lyndon Johnson and, always lurking behind the scenes, the hostile head of the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover.
Death remains a constant stalker in Booker’s story, claiming, among others, Evers, King and the Kennedy brothers.
But each loss is countered by accumulating victories, in every sphere of society up to the presidency. Among the victories is Booker’s achievement of that sweet piece of the American dream, retirement on the shores of the Chesapeake.