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Civil Rights Reporters, Simeon Saunders Booker, Jr. And Roy Reed, Die At 99 And 87


Two leading journalists who covered the civil rights movement of the 1950s and '60s died yesterday. Roy Reed was white. Simeon Booker Jr. was black. As NPR's Neda Ulaby reports, each in his own way helped open the nation's eyes to the struggle against racial injustice.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: Roy Reed got an inkling of what segregation meant while talking to a black customer at his father's grocery store as a young boy in Piney, Ark. His beliefs solidified when he worked for the Arkansas Gazette. In 2006, Reed read an editorial for NPR his paper published in 1957, when the state's governor was resisting the desegregation of public schools.


ROY REED: (Reading) The question has now become the supremacy of the government of the United States in all matters of law. And clearly the federal government cannot let this issue remain unsolved, no matter what the cost to this community.

ULABY: Roy Reed went on to cover the civil rights movement for The New York Times. He was 87 when he died. Simeon Booker was 99. Both men were there during the pivotal march from Selma to Montgomery, Ala., when police attacked protesters on Pettus Bridge. Booker was working for Ebony and Jet magazines. In 2013, he told NPR he was just as shocked as any other Northerner by what was going on in the South.


SIMEON BOOKER JR.: I just couldn't believe that a race of people could be just set aside, told you couldn't work here, couldn't live there, couldn't eat there. It just was so hard on me. I just revolted and said, well, I'm going to change this.

ULABY: Booker was the first full-time black reporter at The Washington Post. Wil Haygood got there years later. He told NPR in 2007 Booker's experiences were not easy.


WIL HAYGOOD: He would go out and he would introduce himself to people as Simeon Booker of The Washington Post. And he said people would throw their heads back and just start laughing out loud in his face because they thought he was joking because they had never met a black reporter from The Washington Post. I mean, that's just heartbreaking.

ULABY: Booker's colleagues would not sit next to him in the cafeteria. After only two years, he left. While working at Ebony and Jet, Booker heard about the murder of a 14-year-old accused of whistling at a white woman. He took a photographer to Emmett Till's funeral. The pictures of Till's open casket and mangled face became a civil rights catalyst. Booker found stories no one else could.


HAYGOOD: The stories that he covered and that he wrote, they mattered. They mattered - to insist to his editors, this is a story in Birmingham. This is a story in Montgomery. This is a story - Reverend George Lee is trying to register blacks to vote. This is a story. This is a story. Send me. I'm ready to go. And he'd take off with his little manual typewriter.

ULABY: Wil Haygood says Simeon Booker became friendly with an FBI agent who'd tip him off to danger.


BOOKER: My whole life was one of fright in newspapering when I was in the South.

ULABY: Later, some criticized Booker since the FBI was also working at the time to undermine the civil rights movement. His wife of 40 years, Carol McCabe Booker, co-wrote his memoir. Almost to the end, she says, Simeon Booker loved speaking about his experiences. One question, she said, came up over and over.

CAROL MCCABE BOOKER: What kept you going back down there? And he answered so matter-of-factly, it was my job.

ULABY: Two men doing their jobs helped change American civil rights. Neda Ulaby, NPR News.


Neda Ulaby reports on arts, entertainment, and cultural trends for NPR's Arts Desk.
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