The Song and The Silence
Where He Was King
On any given Saturday night in the ’50s and ’60s, the place to be for Blacks in Greenwood, Mississippi, was a little spot called Booker’s Place down on McLaurin Street. In those days, McLaurin was lined with darkly lit, poorly maintained one-room bars and juke joints where shootings, stabbings, and robberies were regular weekend occurrences, but Booker’s Place was different.
While the owners of the other joints on McLaurin were happy with whatever business stumbled through the door, Booker had expectations of his customers. He knew that no matter how tangy his barbecue sauce was or how juicy his hamburgers were, the type of customers he really wanted to entertain weren’t going to tolerate the violence so common on McLaurin. At the first sign of quarreling, Booker would put a stop to it with one of his characteristic lines such as: “Maybe the club you just came from was like the O.K. Corral, but if you gonna come in here, you betta sit down and act right.”
Sometimes before a customer with a bad reputation even made it through the entrance Booker would appear at the door and say without apology, “You can’t come in here, I don’t want you in here.” That was usually all it took. That and the butt of the gun protruding from his waistband.
Booker might have considered the gun to be a necessary prop because, without it, he didn’t look very intimidating. In the early years, he was tall and thin, but even as he got older and put on weight, he didn’t become any more imposing. On the contrary, he had a plump, baby face with copper-colored skin that was smooth and taut. When he smiled his cheeks stretched across the bone and lightened, giving the impression he was backlit by an internal glow. This, combined with his polished smile and manicured mustache, created in Booker not the appearance of a tough nightclub owner but one of a happy-go-lucky kid.
His restaurant developed a reputation throughout the state as a place not to be missed. Its owner was almost as well known, in part because he was so difficult to actually know. Booker had a singular characteristic to him, one that was both elusive and potent. In certain instances, this trait was like a Midas touch, ensuring success and allowing him to evade the financial hardships haunting others like him—Black men living in the Delta. At other times, the quality was alienating, rendering Booker so indecipherable that even those who worked by his side for years could only describe him from a relative distance, as if he weren’t a real person but rather a well-crafted representation of one. What most Greenwood Blacks did know about Booker was that they either loved or hated him; few were indifferent.
Even decades after his death, just the mention of his name would cause some of the local Blacks to stop in their tracks, and with looks of indignant defiance, refer to him as an “uppity nigga.” More than one Black woman complained that Booker only dated “light-skinned girls,” while other people didn’t give a reason for why they remembered him as a “scumbag” who was “lowdown” and “mean,” even going so far as to say that when he was murdered he got what he deserved.
But there were also Blacks who couldn’t wait to tell stories about
Booker’s generosity. Like how he let young Black boys eat in his place for free after school just to keep them from running with the gangs, or how he allowed families who were down on their luck to live in his rental properties for free until they were back on their feet. “You’d never meet a nicer person,” one man recalled wistfully.
What Greenwood Blacks could all agree on was the popularity of his restaurant, Booker’s Place.
Booker understood that when people came to his restaurant they were often in need of something beyond just laughter and good food. Many of his customers were seeking respite from the humid, mosquito-filled air of Greenwood, which, for most of their lives, had been thick with fear and uncertainty.
Greenwood was at the center of a colossal battle of wills. By the mid-1960s, two opposing groups had laid claim to Greenwood and both were acting as though the small town was their “hill to die on.” The first was the Council of Federated Organizations (COFO), which included the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). COFO was a national grassroots group committed to a variety of civil rights activities, with a primary focus on getting Blacks to the polls. Their volunteers were coming into Greenwood from all over the country to encourage people of color to organize, protest peacefully, and register to vote. Many Greenwood Blacks were grateful for their presence, agreed with their message, and risked their very lives by participating in the cause. At the same time, other Blacks feared that the influx of agitators would make their already difficult lives even more difficult. They weren’t entirely wrong.
The other group convinced that Greenwood was a “must-win battleground” was the White Citizens’ Council, whose national headquarters were located in the small town. Initially founded to stop the integration of schools, the council evolved into also opposing
other civil rights movement initiatives, like the integration of public facilities and equal voting rights for Blacks. Made up of bankers, businessmen, politicians, members of the planter class, and other people of influence, they used the power of their members to oppose integration.
Blacks involved in the civil rights movement, or rumored to be, often had their rents raised, mortgage renewals on their farms refused, and saw their insurance policies cancelled. They were fired from jobs, and if they happened to be doctors or dentists, their patients were warned not to see them. One bank refused to do business with a Black grocer unless he gave them the records for the local NAACP office he ran in his spare time. So long was the arm of the White Citizens’ Council that some Black activists were even audited without cause by the IRS.
Many elected officials, both state and local, were members. That may be why in 1962, in a move many felt was a direct punishment for local Blacks involved with the civil rights movement, the county’s board of supervisors voted to stop regularly scheduled federal shipments of food, a decision that left twenty-seven thousand residents, of whom most were Black, near starvation.
Word of the unrest in Greenwood became a common topic among the nationwide leaders of the movement. In 1964, Martin Luther King Jr. made plans to visit the small town. The night before he was due to arrive, a woman saw Greenwood police officers throwing bricks through the windows of Booker’s Place and two other Black-run businesses in the area. The message was clear: Do not engage with MLK.
Given the town’s virulent response to the civil rights movement, by simply stepping foot into Greenwood King was putting his life in grave danger. With this in mind, US Attorney General Robert Kennedy contacted the Greenwood Police Force and asked if they would protect King during his visit. They refused.
Kennedy called President Lyndon Johnson to discuss the situation, expressing his concern about how the nation would respond if King were assassinated in Greenwood that summer. President Johnson got the message. He called J. Edgar Hoover, director of the FBI, and gave him instructions to have his agents protect King during his visit, specifying, over and over again, that he wanted King guarded both from the front and the back.
King’s visit occurred without incident, but after he left a flyer was distributed throughout Greenwood. It was most likely created either by or with the influence of a man named Byron De La Beckwith, who was a member of the White Citizens’ Council, as well as a member of the Ku Klux Klan. The flyer included the following excerpt:
TO THOSE OF YOU NIGGERS WHO GAVE OR GIVE AID AND COMFORT TO THIS CIVIL RIGHTS SCUM, WE ADVISE YOU THAT YOUR IDENTITIES ARE IN THE PROPER HANDS AND YOU WILL BE REMEMBERED. WE KNOW THAT THE NIGGER OWNER OF COLLINS SHOE SHOP ON JOHNSON STREET “ENTERTAINED” MARTIN LUTHER KING WHEN THE “BIG NIGGER” CAME TO GREENWOOD. WE KNOW OF OTHERS AND WE SAY TO YOU—AFTER THE SHOUTING AND THE PLATE-PASSING AND STUPID DEMONSTRATIONS ARE OVER AND THE IMPORTED AGITATORS HAVE ALL GONE, ONE THING IS SURE AND CERTAIN—YOU ARE STILL GOING TO BE NIGGERS AND WE ARE STILL GOING TO BE WHITE MEN.
In this calamitous, murderous, fear-filled world Booker managed—whether through raw ambition, genius, luck, or a combination of all three—to create a space that felt set apart and untouched by terror. The town of Greenwood was politically on fire and just beyond his restaurant door; McLaurin was host to all types of violence between residents and random attacks by local police.
But, unless he was standing by that door to play the role of club bouncer, Booker was almost always a picture of uncomplicated ease. His ability to relax in the midst of all that was going on in his community made him seem controlled, powerful, even peaceful.
When he was in his restaurant, Booker spent most of his time moving between tables and chatting it up with his big spenders while an unlit cigar—his “stump”—hung from the corner of his mouth. But it wasn’t just the big spenders who received Booker’s attention. No matter what Booker was doing, each time the front door opened, he’d look to see who was entering, a wide smile would spread across his face, and with the sound of that smile in his warm, raspy voice, he’d call out over the hum of laughter and conversation, “Welcome to Booker’s, glad to see y’all tonight.”
His charm was undeniable, but his food was just as memorable. So popular were the dishes he served that even some Whites made their way not only to the Black side of town but onto the crime-riddled street of McLaurin just to eat at Booker’s Place.
During the height of the Jim Crow era and the tensions of the civil rights movement, this young Black man owned one of the hottest establishments in the Delta, paid cash for cars, had Whites who called him friend, and was wealthy, at least by Greenwood standards. He was viewed as a community leader and many Blacks consulted him on their own business matters.
But there was one more thing.
Most days of the week, an hour would come when Booker had to turn the running of his restaurant over to someone else so he could go to his job at Lusco’s, where he waited tables, serving local Whites. In the early afternoon, he’d leave Booker’s Place and step into the penetrating light of the Delta sun, then climb into his car, which he parked on the curb right out front.
While driving down McLaurin, Booker had to transform himself in a way not unlike a seasoned actor in the precious moments
before stepping from behind the curtain. At Lusco’s, he would don his costume of crisp black slacks, a sparkling white shirt, a clean towel folded over one arm, and his trademark smile. Then, he would step into the dining room where he displayed his façade, one that enabled his customers to eat, drink, laugh, and forget that just beyond Lusco’s storefront, Greenwood’s traditions and its shameful inheritance were burning to the ground.
In the handful of minutes it took to travel the eight blocks that separated Booker’s Place from Lusco’s, his elusive, untranslatable quality shifted, and Booker assumed a different face, one never required of him in the place where he was king.