By Alan Bean
Those who felt “The Help” whitewashed the social realities of civil rights-era Mississippi will welcome “Booker’s Place” a new film that debuted on the film festival circuit over the weekend.
In 1966, Booker Wright was a waiter at Lusco’s, a restaurant in Greenwood, Mississippi with an all-white clientele. This brief quotation from theNew York Times gets to the heart of the matter:
His feat: He dropped his mask of servility in a 1966 television documentary about the state, admitting that he was “crying on the inside” as he kowtowed to customers who sometimes denied him tips and uttered racial slurs. “The meaner the man be, the more you smile,” he explains.
Booker Wright stood on the sidelines during the Greenwood Movement in 1962-63, but he spoke out when he had the opportunity, and paid dearly for it.
Hodding CarterIII, the journalist and former member of the Carter administration, grew up and worked in Greenville, Miss., and said his first reaction upon seeing the documentary was that Mr. Wright was a dead man.
“In one person, in one interview, in one place, you have personified what it was black Mississippi was saying to white Mississippi after all these years,” he says in “Booker’s Place.”
The words uttered by Mr. Wright in that NBC broadcast led to a beating by a local police officer. He lost his waiter’s job at Lusco’s, which he had held since he was 14. His own restaurant was vandalized.
A beloved and respected figure in a town that was a major center for the segregationist Citizens’ Council, he reopened Booker’s Place and bought a school bus to transport children in the Head Start program. He was shot to death by a black customer in his restaurant in 1973, which raised some conspiracy theories.
How could such an innocuous comment spark consequences this dire? If you have to ask the question you don’t know much about the social world of Mississippi during this period. “The Help” was set in Jackson, MS, but was largely filmed in Greenwood, a town that has changed very little since the mid-60s. If this project makes it to mainstream theaters I will be the first in line at the ticket window.