Booker Wright: A Mississippi Story

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Yvette Johnson is a Phoenix resident whose grandfather, Booker Wright, appeared in a 1966 NBC documentary about racism in the southern United States. What he said while the cameras were rolling changed his life forever. Yvette talks about her grandfather’s heroic story that’s featured in a new film she co-produced.

Steve Goldstein: Tonight we meet a Phoenix woman whose research for a family history-writing project at ASU led her on a remarkable journey into her grandfather's heroic past. It's a story that's featured this Sunday on "NBC dateline," but the real story started back in 1965, as David Majure explains.

David Majure: Booker Wright was an African-American businessman living in Greenwood, Mississippi, in 1965. That's the year a filmmaker working for NBC interviewed booker in a documentary about race relations.

Booker Wright: Rib-eye steak, wild mushrooms.

David Majure: Booker owned his own café but also worked as a waiter in a whites-only restaurant. He talked about what that was like.

Booke Wright: Some call me Booker. Some call me John. Some call me Jim. Some call me [audio deleted]. All that hurts, but you have to smile. Always learn to smile. The meaner the man be, the more you smile, although you're crying on the inside.

David Majure: Booker's honest words had serious repurcusions. Booker lost his job, was harassed and beaten by police. Seven years later, Booker was murdered. Now, decades later, a film has been made that explores Booker's life, death, and the role his father's documentary played in both. "Bookers' place: A Mississippi Story" was screened at the 2012 Tribeca film festival. Booker's granddaughter, Yvette Johnson, is a co-producer and also featured in the film.

Yvette Johnson: I am visiting greenwood searching for information about my grandfather. His name was Booker Wright, and he owned a café called booker's place.

Uncredited: Booker's place was a very powerful place, a place that B.B. King would go to until 4:00 the next morning.

Yvette Johnson: 1966, he went on a national news program on NBC, and he talked about what it was like to be a Black Man in Greenwood.

Raymond De Felitta: This was a film my father made in 1966. He's 90 years old this summer, and he never really knew what impact this movie had. But a few weeks ago, I put this movie on the internet, and all of a sudden we started hearing this was something people have been looking for for years.

Steve Goldstein: And joining me now is Yvette Johnson, Booker Wright's grand-daughter and co-producer of the film, Booker's Place. Welcome, Yvette.

Yvette Johnson: Thank you so much for having me on.

Steve Goldstein: How much did you know about your grandfather's story to begin with? What made you so curious?

Yvette Johnson: Well, I had kids of my own. I grew up in California. My family is from Greenwood, Mississippi, so I grew up not really knowing what I came from. I really wanted my kids to have a sense of heritage. I knew my grandfather had owned a restaurant and that he'd been murdered, but I didn't know about his statements to the national news team.

Steve Goldstein: Does it seem remarkable to you that in 1966 there was a national television network doing an interview like this? Then, on top of that your grandfather was so bold to come out like that?

Yvette Johnson: The credit goes to NBC and to Frank De Felitta. Frank really had a vision and just a heart for African-Americans and what they were going through. And then of course my grandfather. The reasons he did what he did he took to his grave, but it was bold and it was dangerous, and it was very brave.

Steve Goldstein: How did you and the filmmaker connect for the documentary and then the NBC special?

Yvette Johnson: Well, I started blogging about it. The filmmaker -- and his father, frank, made the original film, Fr-- Raymond was going through his father's old documentaries and saw this footage of Booker Wright. In it, when my grandfather was speaking, he said part of why he endured the treatment he did was so that he could see his children have a better life. So Raymond had a question. Did Booker Wright's children fare better than he did? And so he found my blog, and we did this film together. Going through the NBC archives, he'd been pitching the story to his higher-ups for years, and they'd always said no. Finally, in the fall, they said, sure, you can revisit this story, only for him to find that we'd already made this film, so we connected, and the rest is history.

Steve Goldstein: With what most of us know about the civil rights movement, your grandfather would not have been something that would be a traditional character in that. We think of people as younger or people coming from the North to have an impact. Were you surprised? Did it make you even prouder that he would have done something like this?

Yvette Johnson: I was very surprised. One of the things that's been fantastic about this experience is that I've really gotten an education in civil rights and in African-American history here in the states. I think a lot of times we're taught these big names -- Martin Luther King Jr., Medgar Evers, malcolm x -- and we don't realize it took nameless, faceless people whose names aren't written in history books. I think it's important for us to realize that: that really one person's actions can make a difference.

Steve Goldstein: Tell us more about the blog. Is the book already available on Amazon?

Yvette Johnson: That's right. I'm working on a large book project that's really sort of the story of Booker Wright and my effort to find him. In the meantime, I have published a book that's available on Amazon. It's a collection of blog posts and journal entries that sort of chronicle how this whole thing went along the way.

Steve Goldstein: How emotional are some of the entries? Will people really find out what Yvette is thinking?

Yvette Johnson: They are. It really was sort of a place for me to go and just put my feelings out. I mean, it's very raw. It is. It's who I am.

Steve Goldstein: When people hear about race relations, we like to think that, after the civil rights movement, things got a lot better, and I would think most people would in fact say that. But when you think about race relations in this country, why is it still so edgy? Why are we not able to talk as much about these things as we should be?

Yvette Johnson: I think people get offended, and I think we have these extremes, these very loud voices. If you say, gosh, I wonder if there was some race-based bias on that, someone might say, well, you have a chip on your shoulder. You're playing the race card. If you say I don't think there was race-based bias, people will say, you're a racist. You're insensitive. My grandfather talked about how it feels to be on the receiving end of racism, and he was just very vulnerable and humble, but he just said, this hurts. He said I want to cry when they talk to me this way. It's not always about huge issues like immigrants coming to our country or affirmative action but that really behind those issues are individuals who just sometimes feel humiliated.

Steve Goldstein: How different is racism for African-Americans specifically today than it would have been in the '60s? There's institutional racism we hear about. Do people cross the street if they see a group of black people? But they're not really keeping black people down in a sense. How do we figure out where the racism is?

Yvette Johnson: It's very complicated and, I think, sometimes not necessarily that it's a worse situation, but it can feel like a worse situation because it is less obvious. I think, if we're less volatile in our rhetoric when we talk about race, we can talk more about institutional racism. To see racism more so, we have to rely on statistics or studies, because it's not as obvious as, say, a murder case or having a cross burnt on your lawn or the Ku Klux Klan or something like that. I have to say the world, Greenwood, we've come so far. Greenwood was a terrorist state really for blacks. My grandfather was pistol-whipped by a white police officer after appearing in this clip, and I heard about that from a judge who knew that it happened then, but no one pressed charges. It was known, and that was just the lay of the land. That couldn't happen now, and thank goodness.

Steve Goldstein: There are some who're concerned, though that that's what many hispanics and latinos may be experiencing when it comes to s-b 10-70, might experience. Do you see parallels?

Yvette Johnson: I do, of course. The idea that you could look like you don't belong and get pulled over and, if you don't have the right documentation with you, if you left your purse at home, you could be thrown into jail. It's scary. And think again, I think -- not to keep harping on this same point, but I do think we need to put ourselves sometimes in other people's shoes and see their humanity. Yes, people are coming from a different country sometimes without proper documentation or maybe they were brought here when they were very young and they grew up here, but why did they come here? Because they wanted a better life for themselves. They're not evil people. We need to find a way to help them achieve that dream in a way that works for everyone.

Steve Goldstein: Yvette, just a few seconds left, but, when a documentary is made, the documentarian always thinks, oh, gosh, if I could have kept this in -- are you pleased with how this turned out?

Yvette Johnson: Oh, yeah. Raymond is a fantastic storyteller. He did us proud.


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