The Little-known Civil Rights-Era Story of Booker Wright

Booker Wright

In the days of Jim Crow, in the town of Greenwood, Mississippi, Booker Wright worked as a waiter at Lusco’s, a Delta staple opened by Sicilian immigrants in 1933. Back then, it only served whites, with Wright plying his trade to the backroom curtained-off booths where bourbon was known to magically appear in dry Leflore County. Wright busted his ass year-in and year-out, until he saved up enough bread to open his own joint, Booker’s Place, where black folks could have a drink, a smoke, and a bite to eat on the “wrong” side of the tracks in the segregated south.

You may recognize Lusco’s and Booker Wright from Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown foray into the Delta, in which southern food writer John T. Edge described it as “a reliquary of indiscretions past.” Back when, Wright kept smiling as he served whites their food, even when he was “crying on the inside.” It was a workable arrangement for him, solely because he wanted his three kids to get the education he had been denied. Wright swallowed his anguish and took being called nigger at his place of work – even by customers who supposedly adored him – with his chin up. But like the state’s famous intersection of Old Highways 61 and 49, Wright came to a crossroads and made a deal with the television devil. He said what he had to say.

In the 1966 NBC documentary “Mississippi: A Self Portrait,” he delivered a soliloquy, a short brilliant look into his life that, in its own quiet way, is as powerful as dogs and water canons in Birmingham, as existentially heartbreaking as Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, as darkly funny and trenchant as peak Richard Pryor, and as of-the-moment as Kendrick Lamar’s “Humble.” The little two-minute-and-change sliver of black-and-white newsreel film would forever change Wright’s life, and some fifty years later, the life of a granddaughter he never knew, Yvette Johnson.

“To be clear, I don’t believe in ghosts, but I do believe in miracles,” says Johnson, author of the poignant new memoir, The Song and the Silence. “In 2007, I first learned of my grandfather’s appearance on NBC news from my Aunt Vera. It felt as though he was reaching out to me through time and space.”

Due to viewer complaints and craven television executives, the documentary only aired once. (Years later, director Frank De Felitta would say he regretted ever putting Wright on camera.) Considering Lusco’s regulars included members of the White Citizen’s Council, the mayor, and the lawyer for Medgar Evers assassin Byron De La Beckwith, Wright had to have known the potential outcomes for speaking out ranged from loss of employment to violent retribution. And thus, he was fired from Lusco’s, his restaurant was firebombed, and a local police officer pistol-whipped him to hospitalization. Both Wright and Booker’s Place survived, but the experience, naturally, hardened him. In a final fatal 1973 indignity, Wright was shot in his hard-won establishment by a local drunk he’d violently eighty-sixed earlier in the evening. He died in the hospital three days later.

Johnson wanted to know more. And not just about her grandfather’s death, of course, but about the entirety of his, and everyone of his era’s, Mississippi existence.

“From the very beginning I was curious about the ‘everyday’ folks who lived through Jim Crow. The idea that every single white person was a hateful, bloodthirsty racist and that every single black person was a saintly, patient, non-violent activist just struck me as too clean cut, too easy,” she says. “I kept trying to imagine what it might have been like to live through those times. My desire to answer that question for myself, coupled with my determination to understand the world Booker lived in, were the driving factors. He came across like a man without an agenda other than telling his own story. Then and now – even more so in the age of ‘alternative facts’ – seeing the simple, honest truth can feel like observing a miracle.”

Yvette Johnson was born into another world entirely. Her father, Leroy Jones, was a defensive end for the great San Diego Charger teams of the early 1980s, so she grew up in an African-American family of means in Southern California. Jones was a womanizer with drug and alcohol problems, and her mother, Katherine, was often distant and belittling of her daughter; the couple would divorce and Johnson often found herself adrift in the sunshine. Too black for the white kids, too white for the black kids. Even after moving to Phoenix, marrying, and starting a family of her own, she yearned for a deeper understanding of her roots, which is why she went back to Greenwood, a place she hadn’t ever really known.

As luck would have it, she soon came into contact with someone who had always called Greenwood home: Booker Wright.

Johnson was already conceptualizing a book about the experience of modern-day African-Americans through her own family story when Frank De Felitta’s son posted his dad’s 1966 work online. Their serendipitous research led to a meeting. She came on board as a co-producer of Raymond De Felitta’s 2012 documentary, “Booker’s Place: A Mississippi Story.”

It’s a thorough extrapolation of the film clip, digging into Wright’s life and the same Delta soil that led to the infamous death a young boy from Chicago whose open casket would change the world. Johnson’s further investigation into her immediate and extended family’s past, and an examination into her personal questions of racial identity in her upbringing, led to The Song and the Silence. Amazingly, her book comes right on the heels of Timothy Tyson’s The Blood of Emmet Till, in which a key witness at the murder trial confessed to lying on the stand, helping Till’s killers walk free. While doing research, Johnson heard from people in Greenwood that Wright’s murder involved more people than the lost soul with a sawed-off shotgun, that there had been a bigger plot to have him killed. Her sleuthing turned up no miracles, only ghosts.

Still, Till’s death shadowed her. The only coincidence in Tyson’s book coming out a few months prior is in the timing.

“We’re America. We’re the city on the hill. We just don’t want to believe that we could also be a place of horrors,” Johnson says. “Till’s story is powerful because it’s true. It’s not anecdotal. When he was murdered in 1955, it was like a bomb going off around the nation. When a new person learns of his story today it is like a bomb going off in an individual’s mind. Till’s story continues to have such a profound and lasting influence on American culture because he was an innocent child who was not just murdered, but tortured in a way most adults can’t even listen to without wincing. And his killers got off.”

Wright’s story isn’t anecdotal either. A brave man told America what it didn’t want to hear. It cost him nearly everything. Johnson says she rarely watches the Booker Wright footage, because she can’t do anything to help her long-dead grandfather.

“Booker’s is the voice of existential despair that so many were not allowed to admit, and the footage leaves me stuck in a whirlpool of pain and bitterness,” she says. “He didn’t mince words, sugarcoat, or search for the politest way to share his story, but that doesn’t mean he was rude or careless either. In a time when blatant machismo was an impressive quality, my grandfather went on national television and spoke of crying, being humiliated, and fearing for his children’s future without once coming across as weak. His honesty and vulnerability cut through all the talk and called out something that lives in the deepest part of each and every one of us. The past is about people.”

Yvette Johnson went back in time to make sense of the present. She didn’t entirely make peace with it, but she certainly did right by her grandfather. And herself.  As the Bard of Mississippi William Faulkner said, “The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past.” In that spirit, watch the clip again and keep this touching passage from The Song and the Sorrow in mind:

Empathy is powerful. When Booker appeared in Frank’s documentary, he set alight a fire of compassion in the souls of complete strangers throughout the nation. He didn’t speak about voting rights or access to public spaces, as important as those issues were – instead he won them over with his vulnerability. He stood in front of a camera and revealed the deepest parts of himself as if he believed that if people could really see him, really understand what it felt like to be Black in his world, that it would arouse in them not just sorrow, but indignation and a commitment to action as well. 

“More than anything, I wanted to be just like him.

Yvette Johnson may not have solved the mystery of Wright’s death, but in writing The Song and the Silence, she is, indeed, just like him.