Back in 1966, NBC News aired an hour-long documentary called Mississippi: A Self Portrait, hosted by Frank McGee and filmed by Frank De Felitta the previous year, which you can see here or here, and a transcript here.
The documentary showed a relatively short piece about a black waiter named Booker Wright which you can watch here. After extolling the menu of the food at Lusco’s from memory, Wright noted:
Now that’s what my customers, I say my customers, be expecting of me. When I come in this is how they want me to be dressed. “Booker, tell my people what to do with that.” Some people are nice, some is not. Some call me Booker, some call me John, some call me Jim. Some call me [expletive]. All that hurts, but you have to smile. If you don’t, “What’s wrong with you? Why are you not smiling? Get over there and get me so and so and so and so.” …
Then I got some old people who come in real nice. “How you do, waiter? What’s your name?” Then I take care of some not so good, and I keep that smile. Always learn to smile. The meaner the man be, the more you smile, although you’re crying on the inside. Are you wondering what else can I do? Sometimes he’ll tip you, sometimes he’ll say, “I’m not going to tip that [expletive], he don’t look for no tip.” “Yes, sir, thank you.” “What did you say?” Come back, “Glad I could take care of you.”…
I’m trying to make a living. Why? I got three children. I want to give them an education. A lot of us never get the education. But I want them to get it. And they are doing good. Night after night, I lay down and I dream about what I had to go through with. I don’t want my children to have to go through with this. I want them to be able to get the job that they would be qualified. That’s what I’m struggling for.
…”Hey, tell that [expletive] to hurry up with that coffee.” “I’m on my way.” Now that’s what you have to go through with. But remember, you have to keep that smile.
From the Grio: “The repercussions for Booker Wright’s courageous candidness were extreme. He lost his job and was beaten and ostracized by those who considered him ‘one of their own.’ Almost fifty years after Booker Wright’s television appearance, his granddaughter Yvette Johnson, and Frank De Felitta’s son, director Raymond De Felitta, journey into the Mississippi Delta in search of answers: Who exactly was Booker Wright? What was the mystery surrounding his courageous life and untimely murder?”
Watch the Democracy Now interview about the 2012 documentary Booker’s Place, which tells the story of that black Mississippi waiter who lost his life by speaking out. Also, see the 2012 NBC News Dateline story about both documentaries, made nearly a half-century apart.
Yvette Johnson has created The Booker Wright Project. It was designed “to help move the conversation along. By conversation, I mean discussion on race, class, gender, sexuality, age, religion, and more. The topics that tend to divide us. These issues are like fault lines running through our nation, threatening not only to further divide us but to destroy us. In spite of all we have in common, in light of all we’ve overcome, there are several areas in which Americans are consistently, undeniably divided.
“We don’t have to agree on everything. But we have to respect one another enough to not let our individual preferences lead to violence, hate, a lack of empathy, or turning our backs to the challenges of others.”