Imagine looking back at one’s ancestry and finding a pioneer and a revolutionary to be among them; imagine undisclosed vital family information that was untold about one’s grandfather and all that he stood for; imagine being Yvette Johnson, the San Diego native who wrote the book, “In Search of Booker Wright” about her journey to discover her grandfather’s story, his courage, and his immense impact on racism in the South.
The Institute of Politics and Public Service in collaboration with the Center for Justice and Reconciliation presented a documentary screening of “Booker’s Place: A Mississippi Story” on Oct. 14. Approximately 60 students and staff gathered in Colt Hall to watch the inspirational film of Yvette Johnson’s journey to find Booker Wright’s story, an African- American waiter from Greenwood, Mississippi who agreed to an interview with NBC about racism in America that changed his life forever as well as the lives of his family members.
While filming “Mississippi: A Self-Portrait,” a documentary for NBC in 1965, director Frank De Felitta was on a mission to uncover the truth of racism in the South.
“In Mississippi, the first thing whites tell you is how much they love their blacks,” Frank De Felitta said in the film. “They would say ‘they raised me; I have a black mother and a white mother.’”
De Felitta then interviewed Booker Wright, who explained how African-Americans were really being treated and how it made him feel. According to the film, blacks in the media were mostly talking about the rights they wanted, but Wright talked about how he was “crying on the inside,” and how he still must smile even though customers would deny him tips or say racial slurs towards him.
“The time is come…I’ve been hurting all my life and have something to say,” Wright said to De Felitta when questioned if he was aware of the consequences after this interview would air nationally.
After the film was aired, Wright lost his job as a waiter, whites refused to be served by him; he was beaten by police and ultimately murdered all from speaking the truth.
In 2011, Frank De Felitta’s son, Raymond, returned to Mississippi in collaboration with Yvette Johnson, granddaughter of Booker Wright, as well as author, filmmaker and inspirational speaker, to illustrate Wright’s story and reveal the background of this famous NBC interview nearly 50 years prior.
“I first thought [my grandfather] was an accidental activist,” Johnson says in the documentary on the start of this four year journey to find this footage of Wright. “But then I saw that he knew what he was doing. He knew the gravity of what he was doing and it wasn’t an accident.”
The releasing of “Booker Wright: A Mississippi Story” along with Johnson’s book “In Search of Booker Wright: A collection of blog posts and journal entries” has gotten a great deal of attention by the media such as a NBC Dateline feature with Johnson as well as an article in the New York Times.
Director of the Center for Justice and Reconciliation and professor of Sociology Jamie Gates said that he was happy that Johnson came in search of them for this event.
“I hope students learn about who Booker Wright was,” he said.
Gates challenged the student body to name civil rights activists besides the typical names learned in history books. Gates believed this event will educate students on someone who was still important during that time period.
“Students will say Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, and maybe Malcom X,” he said. “This will go beyond the surface level about race.”
There was a Q & A session with Yvette Johnson after the documentary screening where she explained a little of her story and how her family “escaped” Greenwood, MI by growing-up in San Diego and how it is more difficult to see racism today then it was then.
“It was easier in the 1960s to see the racists,” Johnson said at the event. “I think we need to find humility rather than search for the racist in people. We need to rise above racism.”
She also discussed her book, her blog on BookerWright.com and informed the crowd of her upcoming project, Booker’s Place, which involves transforming Wright’s own restaurant in Greenwood into a Delta region children’s literacy program.
“This project is so much bigger than me,” she said, “I still have a dream bigger than the book and bigger than the movie.”
Johnson now resides in Arizona with her husband and two sons.