Legacy of Booker Wright, waiter murdered after speaking out on ‘whites only’ restaurant in Mississippi

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In 1965, filmmaker Frank De Felitta produced an NBC News documentary about white attitudes towards race in the American South and the tensions of life in the Mississippi Delta during the Civil Rights struggle.  The film outraged some Southern viewers, in part, because of a candid and unforgettable scene featuring Booker Wright, a local African-American waiter in Greenwood, MS.  Wright, who worked at a local “whites only” restaurant, went on national television to deliver a stunning and heartfelt monologue about his true feelings about serving the white community, and about his aspirations for his children, who he hoped would grow up free from the prejudice he faced.  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? And what role did this 1965 NBC News documentary play in his fate? While Booker Wright’s name does not appear in history books, Finding Booker’s Place demonstrates that his legacy continues to inspire, many decades later.  The broadcast also raises critical questions about society today.  Most importantly, in 2012,can we truly say we live in a post-racial America?

On Sunday, “Dateline” will air Finding Booker’s Place, an unflinching look into race relations in America over the last four and a half decades.  “Dateline” follows the paths of two strangers, both bent on unraveling family mysteries, who discover that they share a unique bond that is rooted within NBC News and goes back to the most tumultuous days of the Civil Rights movement in Mississippi.  TheGrio talked to “Dateline” anchor Lester Holt about Booker’s story.

THEGRIO:  Who was Booker Wright?

LESTER HOLT: While you won’t find Booker Wright’s name in any history books, he is an unsung hero whose legacy continues to inspire, many decades later.  He was a local African-American waiter in Greenwood, MS who worked at a local “whites only” restaurant.  After going on national television to deliver a stunning and heartfelt monologue about his true feelings about serving the white community, his life was forever changed.

What part did NBC News play in his story?

The broadcast that Booker Wright courageously appeared on over 40 decades ago was an NBC News documentary.  In 1966, filmmaker Frank DeFelitta produced an NBC News documentary about white attitudes towards race in the American South and the tensions of life in the Mississippi Delta during the civil rights struggle.  The film outraged some Southern viewers, in part, because of an unforgettable scene featuring Booker Wright.

What surprised you most about this story?

Besides the coincidence of three people from broadly different backgrounds –a pair of filmmakers and Booker Wright’s granddaughter – separately trying to uncover Booker Wright’s story, I was frankly surprised we hadn’t heard of Wright and his brave act of defiance before.  His painful description to a national television audience of the degradation and humiliation he suffered as a black man in Mississippi was as courageous an act as any from that time. Of course the documentary in which he appeared only ran once in 1966, and in those days there was no equivalent to “viral video.” His story would have gone untold if not for the determination of the individuals you will meet in our report.

How did white Mississippians react to your search for Booker?

My sense is that the people of Mississippi do not run from their history. On the contrary, in many ways it is openly acknowledged as a point of reference to demonstrate and appreciate how far things have come.  In the original documentary, a group of Greenwood civic leaders speak about the virtues on segregation.  46 years later, Greenwood has a mixed race town council. The people I met, both black and white, seemed genuinely interested and supportive of our story.

What’s the one big takeaway you want viewers to get from this broadcast?

I don’t like to predispose what viewers will or should take from a given story, but for me personally, Booker Wright’s story was a reminder that broad change in society isn’t always rooted in high-profile seminal moments. Sometimes the seeds of change are planted by small and unrecognized acts of courage.

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Booker’s Place: A Mississippi Story is a 2012 documentary film about Booker Wright, an African-American waiter who worked in a restaurant for whites only.

In 1965, Wright appeared in Mississippi: A Self Portrait, a short NBC television documentary about racism in the American South. During his interview with producer Frank De Felitta, he spoke openly about racism, and his treatment as a waiter in an all-white restaurant. The broadcast of his remarks had catastrophic consequences for Wright.

Booker’s Place: A Mississippi Story was directed by the son of Frank De Felitta, Oscar-nominated, independent filmmaker Raymond De Felitta, and co-produced by one of Booker Wright’s four grandchildren, Yvette Johnson. It includes interviews with those who lived in the community. They discuss life at the time, and the restaurant Wright owned, which catered to African-American customers.

Director, Raymond De Felitta
The documentary premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival on April 25, 2012.

Booker’s Place: A Mississippi Story was directed by the son of Frank De Felitta, Oscar-nominated, independent filmmaker Raymond De Felitta, and co-produced by one of Booker Wright’s four grandchildren, Yvette Johnson.  It includes interviews with those who lived in the community. They discuss life at the time, and the restaurant Wright owned, which catered to African-American customers.

Mississippi: A Self Portrait

The original documentary, the subject of Booker’s Place: A Mississippi Story, was produced by Frank De Felitta in 1965. De Felitta worked for NBC as a documentary filmmaker. He was given his own unit, and so generally had the freedom to select his own topics. He was inspired to make Mississippi: A Self Portrait after reading a New York Times Sunday Magazine article by Hodding Carter about injustice experienced by African Americans in Mississippi. He approached NBC, and the project was approved.  He traveled to Mississippi to interview local residents. There, in Greenwood, he was introduced to Booker Wright, a waiter at Lusco’s, a whites-only restaurant. Wright sang the menu, a gimmick at the restaurant. This was also because there were no menus, a measure used to discourage African Americans from patronizing the restaurant.  Wright spoke openly about his treatment by customers, and life in a racist society. The documentary appeared on NBC television.

Consequences of the broadcast

Following the broadcast of the NBC documentary, Wright quit his job at the all-white restaurant after being shunned by customers. He was severely pistol-whipped by a policeman, and his own restaurant, Booker’s Place was firebombed. Wright was eventually murdered by an African American customer.

You can watch Booker’s Place on Netflix.