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Shocking the Conscience

A Reporter's Account of the Civil Rights Movement

Simeon Booker

Publication Year: 2012

Within a few years of its first issue in 1951, Jet, a pocket-size magazine, became the "bible" for news of the civil rights movement. It was said, only half-jokingly, "If it wasn't in Jet, it didn't happen." Writing for the magazine and its glossy, big sister Ebony, for fifty-three years, longer than any other journalist, Washington bureau chief Simeon Booker was on the front lines of virtually every major event of the revolution that transformed America.

Rather than tracking the freedom struggle from the usually cited ignition points, Shocking the Conscience begins with a massive voting rights rally in the Mississippi Delta town of Mound Bayou in 1955. It's the first rally since the Supreme Court's Brown decision struck fear in the hearts of segregationists across the former Confederacy. It was also Booker's first assignment in the Deep South, and before the next run of the weekly magazine, the killings would begin.

Booker vowed that lynchings would no longer be ignored beyond the black press. Jet was reaching into households across America, and he was determined to cover the next murder like none before. He had only a few weeks to wait. A small item on the AP wire reported that a Chicago boy vacationing in Mississippi was missing. Booker was on it, and stayed on it, through one of the most infamous murder trials in U.S. history. His coverage of Emmett Till's death lit a fire that would galvanize the movement, while a succession of U.S. presidents wished it would go away.

This is the story of the century that changed everything about journalism, politics, and more in America, as only Simeon Booker, the dean of the black press, could tell it.

Published by: University Press of Mississippi

Cover, Title Page, Copyright, Quotations

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pp. ix-x

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pp. xi-xii

For decades, a pocket-size news magazine published in Chicago and distributed nationally, often by kids before and after school, kept black America informed about the turbulent events that were about to change the lives of black and white Americans alike throughout the country. ...

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1. The Sleeping Giant

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pp. 3-13

Nothing in either my upbringing or training prepared me for what I encountered on my first trip to Mississippi in April 1955. I was a thirty-seven-year-old reporter for Ebony and Jet, two nationally circulated, black-owned magazines based in Chicago, and had worked previously on both Negro and white newspapers, including The Washington Post. ...

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2. “Time Is Running Out”

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pp. 14-17

The voting rights rally proved to be, as expected, the largest ever in Mississippi, with an astounding 13,000 black men, women, and children in attendance—an assemblage unseen in the area since 1909, when Booker T. Washington dedicated the town’s oil mill, the largest black business venture of the early 1900s. ...

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3. The Rally Ends; The Killing Begins

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pp. 18-25

Known paradoxically as both the most hated and the best loved man in Mississippi, Dr. Howard, along with other civil rights leaders in the state, was on a white racist death list. Doc hired gun-toting bodyguards to protect himself and his family around the clock. He kept a small arsenal of weapons in his home, including a .45-caliber Thompson submachine gun. ...

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4. Born to Dream

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pp. 26-48

Baltimore molded many giants in the freedom movement, including that great “quarterback” of the civil rights team, Thurgood Marshall, and my first mentor, Carl Murphy, crusading publisher of the Afro-American newspapers. I never want it forgotten that I was born there, although I grew up in Youngstown, Ohio. ...

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5. “Let Them See What I’ve Seen”

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pp. 49-62

On Saturday afternoon, August 17, 1955, three months after the assassination of the Reverend George Lee in Belzoni, Mississippi, I received a call from a source in the Delta informing me that another civil rights activist in the state had been murdered. Like Rev. Lee, Lamar Smith, a sixty-year-old farmer and World War I vet, was an organizer of black voter registration. ...

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6. The Trial

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pp. 63-83

The trial of J. W. Milam and Roy Bryant began on September 19, 1955, less than two weeks after Emmett Till was buried in Chicago. Judge Curtis M. Swango would preside, having insisted that the trial be held during the court’s current session, due to expire shortly, rather than in the next session in the spring. ...

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7. “The Little Magazine That Could” Comes to Washington

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pp. 84-93

By the end of 1955, it was clear that a bureau in the nation’s capital was a must if Jet were going to succeed as a news magazine. Much of the news germane to the civil rights movement was originating in Washington. The NAACP was pursuing cases in federal courts, including the highest court in the land; ...

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8. “A Communist under Every Bed”

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pp. 94-107

In New York City in August 1956, a year after the Till kidnapping and murder, the Mound Bayou physician and voting rights activist who had spurred the middle of the night race through the backwoods to find prosecution witnesses solemnly told Jet that he had left the Mississippi Delta forever. ...

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9. Ike’s First Term

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pp. 108-111

Dwight D. Eisenhower’s eight years as president of the United States saw significant gains for America’s Negro population, many of which were to his credit. But they were also years of horrific civil rights crimes that went unpunished, voting rights that were denied, and very difficult and dangerous challenges for blacks ...

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10. The Battle of Little Rock

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pp. 112-130

On September 24, 1957, at about 6:00 p.m., 1,000 paratroopers of the 101st Airborne “Screaming Eagle” Division of the 327th Infantry Regiment began rolling into Little Rock, and dozens of reporters, followed by clusters of curious citizens, raced to watch them leap from trucks to their deployment at Central High School. ...

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11. Eisenhower Redux

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pp. 131-153

I had no opportunity during Eisenhower’s eight years in office to ask him even one question, much less get a full scale interview, but almost two years after he left office, he agreed to give me an hour at his farm in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. I was writing Black Man’s America, and, like lots of other people, I had a number of lingering questions ...

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12. Baltimore, My Baltimore

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pp. 154-161

If one thing was clear as the Eisenhower administration waned, it was that blacks would get nowhere fast without increased voting strength, as the power of the ballot appeared to be the only force capable of moving the political machine. While in the South, registrars continued to use the most outrageous tactics to block Negro registration, ...

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13. A Tale of Two Campaigns

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pp. 162-173

Ebony celebrated a milestone in the 1960 election year, publishing its fifteenth anniversary issue in November. The magazine had grown to an impressive 172 pages, printing more than 800,000 copies, read by about four million people around the world. It was shipped to some 30 countries, and could be found on newsstands in Paris, ...

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14. A New Day Dawning

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pp. 174-179

The day before JFK’s inauguration, I received a telephone call informing me of my selection for the press pool accompanying the president-elect. For a Negro, this was as unprecedented as Kennedy’s earlier rerouting of the campaign planes back to Washington after a Kentucky hotel refused me a room. And this was just the beginning. ...

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15. The Freedom Rides

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pp. 180-204

Driving the politics behind the nation’s race revolution were the streams of Negroes moving from South to North, and from rural to urban communities, bringing with them the potential to build powerful voting blocs. In 1960, the census bureau reported more than fifteen cities with “exploding Negro populations,” ...

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16. No Ordinary Football Game

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pp. 205-210

If Mother’s Day, 1961, in Birmingham, Alabama, had unleashed a level of racial hatred I’d never witnessed before, Thanksgiving Day, 1962, in Washington, D.C., was a close runner-up. The difference was that in the latter instance, the people swinging the fists, and even some chains and other weapons, were black. ...

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17. Camelot, The Final Act

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pp. 211-231

As 1962 came to an end, Ebony’s editors cited as the “most spectacular breakthrough” of the year, the “successful, military-backed attack on diehard Mississippi’s color line in higher education” that culminated in the admission of James H. Meredith to the University of Mississippi.1 While the admission of one student might not seem a great achievement, ...

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18. A Southern President

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pp. 232-247

Two days after President Kennedy’s assassination, Lyndon Johnson was on the telephone with civil rights leaders to secure their support for an all-out campaign to win passage of the late president’s civil rights bill.1 The first call was to National Urban League executive director Whitney Young. ...

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19. “All the Way with LBJ”

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pp. 248-264

Lyndon Baines Johnson began his Great Society doing something no American president had ever done before: he danced with a Negro woman at his Inaugural Ball. He didn’t give a damn if every newspaper in the country ran the photograph. Lynette Taylor was the wife of fellow Texan Hobart Taylor, co-chairman of the Inaugural Committee, ...

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20. Fighting On

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pp. 265-281

The flames burned in riot-torn Watts for five days, occupying 100 fire brigades and almost 14,000 National Guardsmen, called up to supplement police amid widespread violence and looting. The incident that ignited the rioting was a traffic stop, in which a white California Highway Patrolman had stopped a black driver ...

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21. A Familiar Face

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pp. 282-294

At seven-foot-two, NBA star Wilt Chamberlain towered above the heads of the thousands of mourners outside Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church for the funeral of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Even at a distance, I spotted him inching his way toward the entrance, but didn’t notice until he was almost there that following behind him ...

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22. The End of the Beginning

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pp. 295-310

In journalism, as in many professions, if you’re around long enough and do a reasonably good job, you’re likely to gather a few awards to hang on your walls. From a professional standpoint, the recognition of one’s peers is an unparalleled tribute. That’s how I felt when the National Press Club honored me with its prestigious Fourth Estate Award ...

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pp. 311-312

Carol and I have benefited from the support and encouragement of many friends and family members during this daunting venture to turn more than sixty years of reporting into a meaningful and lasting retrospective. It was an effort I could not have undertaken without my wife’s research and writing skills, ...


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pp. 313-320

Selected Bibliography

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pp. 321-322


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pp. 323-334

E-ISBN-13: 9781621039495
E-ISBN-10: 1617037893
Print-ISBN-13: 9781617037894

Page Count: 352
Publication Year: 2012