Writer and filmmaker Yvette Johnson made an incredible discovery about her late grandfather, Mack “Booker” Wright. During this year’s Symposium, Johnson will share how she came to know her grandfather and why his story is still relevant more than forty years after his death in 1973.
Johnson’s initial curiosity about her grandfather was sparked when she learned of a film clip that her grandfather appeared in eight years before his murder. The NBC television documentary, Mississippi: A Self Portrait, directed by Frank De Fellito, discussed racism in the American South and aired in 1966.
At the time of filming, Booker Wright owned a juke joint and restaurant called Booker’s Place in the Negro district (as it was called then) of Greenwood. At night, he was a waiter at Lusco’s, a restaurant that served only white patrons. During the first minute of his brief scene in the documentary, Wright “performs” the menu at Lusco’s in this rhythmic song-like fashion, which he was known for by frequent restaurant goers. Wright then describes how white clientele treated him at Lusco’s, stating that some were nice and others were not. A melancholy moment occurs when Wright expresses the dreams he has for his children as his motivation to push through the daily struggle he encountered being African American in Greenwood during the tumultuous civil rights movement.
“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 that. I want them to get the job they feel qualified. That’s what I’m struggling for.”
Yvette was born one year after her grandfather’s death, so any memory of his legacy has come from this documentary clip and interviews she has conducted with her family members and Greenwood community members that knew Booker Wright. Johnson says, she developed a strong desire to know her grandfather. In 2012, Yvette Johnson collaborated with Frank De Fellito’s son, Oscar-nominated, independent filmmaker Raymond De Fellito to co-produce the documentary Booker’s Place: A Mississippi Story. The film discusses life at the time of Booker’s Place with interviews of those who knew him and frequented the juke joint.
The Symposium will close on Sunday, October 26, with an oratorio in honor of Mr. Booker Wright, barkeep, activist, and waiter. The SFA conceived the oratorio in conjunction with pianist Bruce Levingston and poet Kevin Young, and the work was composed by Young and Nolan Gasser. It will be performed by Levingston and baritone Justin Hopkins. We will share more details on the oratorio in the upcoming weeks and share more about the artists responsible for this take on one man’s heroism.