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Simeon Booker, chronicler of civil rights struggle, dies

Award-winning journalist Simeon Booker at an interview in

Award-winning journalist Simeon Booker at an interview in Washington, D.C., in 1982. Credit: The Washington Post / Fred Sweets

The photographs stunned the country: a 14-year-old boy dead in a coffin, his head crushed, an eye gouged, his body disfigured beyond recognition from an agony in which he was beaten, shot, tied with barbed wire to a weight and submerged in the Tallahatchie River of Mississippi.

The young man was Emmett Till. His murder in 1955 — punishment for the transgression of whistling at or otherwise offending a white woman — became the most infamous of the thousands of lynchings visited upon African-Americans in the Jim Crow South. Till’s death galvanized the civil rights movement, but only after Simeon Booker helped deliver the story to a national audience.

Booker, the Washington bureau chief of Jet and Ebony magazines for five decades, died Dec. 10 at an assisted-living community in Solomons, Maryland. He was 99 and had recently been hospitalized for pneumonia, said his wife, Carol Booker.

Few reporters risked more to chronicle the civil rights movement than Booker. He was the first full-time black reporter for The Washington Post, serving on the newspaper’s staff for two years before joining the Johnson Publishing Co. to write for Jet, a weekly, and Ebony, a monthly modeled on Life magazine, in 1954.

From home bases in Chicago and later in Washington, Booker ventured into the South and sent back dispatches that reached black readers across the United States. He was in Chicago, Till’s hometown, when he heard that the young man had disappeared while visiting relatives in Money, Miss.

Booker instinctively went to the home of the young man’s mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, and earned her trust as she moved through her terror and then grief. He was with her at the funeral home where, over the objections of everyone present, she insisted that the casket bearing her son’s mutilated corpse be opened. Booker described the scene in Jet:

“Her face wet with tears, she leaned over the body, just removed from a rubber bag in a Chicago funeral home, and cried out, ‘Darling, you have not died in vain. Your life has been sacrificed for something.’ ”

A Jet photographer, David Jackson, photographed Till’s body, which thousands of mourners observed at his funeral. No mainstream news outlets published the images of Till’s body, according to an account decades later in The New York Times. But their appearance in Jet and several other African-American publications helped make the Till murder “the first great media event of the civil rights movement,” historian David Halberstam wrote in his book “The Fifties.”

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