By Samantha Phillips
Judge Nathaniel Jones was awarded the first Simeon Booker Courage Award from Mahoning Valley Sojourn to the Past at the DeYor Center for the Performing Arts on Sept. 28.
Simeon Booker is a Youngstown native, who is known for his reporting during the civil rights era. He’s nationally renowned for covering the death of 14-year-old Emmett Till, who was lynched for allegedly talking to a white woman in 1955.
Penny Wells, director of Mahoning Valley Sojourn to the Past, said the group focuses on educating students about the Civil Rights movement.
“We felt the Simeon Booker Award fit very well into Nonviolence Week, because he was working for peace and justice and standing up for what he thought was right,” she said.
Both Booker and Jones grew up in Youngstown and attended Youngstown State University. Booker dropped out after a year, because the school was still segregated, and black students weren’t allowed to participate in activities.
Jones would graduate and go on to help end school segregation in the north. He served as general counsel for the NAACP, arguing several cases before the Supreme Court. In 1979, he was appointed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit by President Jimmy Carter.
Wells said he deserved the Simeon Booker Award, because he wasn’t afraid to speak up when he thought something was wrong — he wasn’t a “silent witness.”
“We were looking for people who stuck their neck out for justice,” Wells said. “Whether it was physically or being the lone wolf that spoke up when everyone else was silent.”
Wells said Mahoning Valley Sojourn to the Past is trying to raise money for a scholarship for YSU minority upperclassmen in Simeon Booker’s name. The money raised at the event will go towards the scholarship, and YSU will match it dollar-for-dollar.
“It will go to someone on campus who we feel is following the steps of Simeon Booker, meaning the characteristics he portrayed and trying to make a difference in spite of hardship,” she said.
Jerry Mitchell, an investigative reporter from the Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Mississippi, delivered the keynote address. He said he admired Jones’ “incredible career.”
“He played a key role in the civil rights movement,” Mitchell said.
He said Jones helped people in a time where black people could be killed for trying to vote.
Mitchell has made his name reporting on cold cases from the civil rights era.
“He has investigated a lot of the cases that were not brought to judges, murders that were not brought to justice in the ‘60s,” Wells said.
Sojourn to the Past aims to bring awareness to the contributions Booker and Jones made for the civil rights movement. The ceremony honored both men for their work.
Wells said everyone should aspire to be like Jones and Booker — to make a difference in the world.
“I hope the main takeaway is all of us, no matter what age we are, have the power to make a difference,” Wells said. “The choice is ours, we have to decide if we are going to stand up and not just be a witness.”