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40 years later, Mississippi waiter's 'magical moment' renews race relations

By Tim Beacham 
Dateline NBC

WARNING:  Some of the language in this story could be considered shocking to some.

The Mississippi Delta is thousands of miles and a lifetime away from Southern California where Raymond De Felitta and Yvette Johnson grew up.

Raymond is white and pushing 50. He was raised in the Hollywood Hills, the son of a successful filmmaker and novelist. Yvette, is black and more than ten years younger than Raymond. She grew up in an affluent community in San Diego, the daughter of former NFL football star.

Until the spring of 2011, the two of them had never met. But in a strange twist of fate, both discovered that they shared a unique bond, rooted in an NBC News documentary that aired only once, on a Sunday evening in May 1966,.

The film, called Mississippi:A Self Portrait, was written, produced and directed by Raymond's father, Frank De Felitta. Yvette's grandfather, Booker Wright, was its star.  Although he made only a brief cameo appearance in the film, it was an appearance that would have a lasting impact of the lives of both Booker and Frank.  And nearly fifty years later, it would draw Raymond and Yvette together on a project to find the meaning of that single moment captured on a grainy snippet of film.

As a child, Raymond watched the films his father had made when he worked as an award winning producer for NBC News in the 1960s. There were documentaries titled: The Battle of the Bulge, The Stately Ghosts of England, and The Chosen Child, which was about a young couple who were trying to adopt. But Raymond’s favorite by far, wasMississippi: A Self-Portrait.

"And I remember when we used to screen the films at home. They were, by then, 10 years old." Raymond says. "They looked to me much older, you know?  'Cause it was the 1970s and everyone in those movies was wearing thin ties.  And it's in black and white and it's like another world.  But I remember seeing Mississippi and finding the film striking. Largely because of Booker Wright."

Frank De Felitta had set out for Mississippi to make his film in the Spring of 1965--a perilous time in the Civil Rights Era.  It was less than a year after the murders of three Civil Rights workers who'd been helping Mississippi blacks register to vote.  Nearly 40 black churches had been burned to the ground in Mississippi the previous summer. And the Delta cotton town of Greenwood-- where Frank ultimately shot much of his film-- had seen plenty of trouble. Ten years earlier, Emmit Till—a 14-year-old visiting from Chicago--had been lynched nearby for whistling at a white woman. And Greenwood was home to Byron de la Beckwith--a man who, at the time, had already been twice tried and acquitted for the murder of Civil Rights leader Medgar Evers. Frank knew it would be a dangerous undertaking.

"The FBI scared me," Frank remembers. "They told me, 'We think you're crazy. You're not going to be welcomed. And we can't help you. All we can give you are some phone numbers. All throughout Mississippi we have agents.'"

According to Frank, Booker Wright came close to not even being in the film because Frank never intended to interview blacks.

"The whole idea of the Mississippi picture was not to do the story of black angst. We know that.  We were trying to see whether Mississippians, white Mississippians, can reconcile themselves to a better way of treating the blacks."

For weeks Frank De Filetta says he wandered around Greenwood, sampling white opinion. For the most part, whites defended segregation and told Frank that they believed blacks were happy with the status quo.

"I feel that God had a purpose in creating the races separate," said Mary Cain, who was a local newspaper publisher at the time.   "I am so proud of negroes who are so proud of being negroes. They are what God made them.  And I'm proud of being white because I am what my white race has made me. I am white today because my parents practiced segregation."

When Frank gathered the town's leaders, they told him they thought the races were getting along just fine in Greenwood.  "I think our colored people are very happy, extremely happy here in Mississippi," said one of them.  "I think they feel the same way about us."

Then one day, a member of Frank's crew suggested that he meet a black waiter who worked at a restaurant in Greenwood.

    "He came to me one day and said, 'I got a wonderful black man.  His name is Booker Wright.  And he's a waiter at Lusco's Restaurant.  And what he does, is a minstrel scene.  He does a singsong of the menu.  And that's the only menu they have.  People wanna know the menu, they get, 'Booker, go tell 'em.'  And he'll sing them the song of the menu. And it's absolutely delightful.'"

Once Frank saw Booker Wright perform the menu recitation, he arranged to film the routine the next day. So Booker Wright recited the menu for Frank's camera. Then, without warning, he shifted gears and launched into a monologue that had been 40 years in the making:

"Now that's what my customers, I say my customers are expecting from me," he began. "Some people nice. Some is not. Some call me Booker. Some call me John. Some call me Jim. Some call me nigger! All of that hurts but you have to smile. The meaner the man be the more you have to smile, even though you're crying on the inside.

"You're wondering what else can I do. Sometimes he'll tip you, sometimes he'll say, ‘I'm not gonna tip that nigger, he don't look for no tip.’ I say, 'Yes sir, thank you.'  I'm trying to make a living."

For nearly two minutes, Booker Wright, spoke straight to the camera, and straight from the heart. 

"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," Booker concluded.

  "I went there to photograph a minstrel show," Frank says, "And I stayed there to hear a man talking about his life and what his dreams are. And it was so moving."

 But now, Frank De Felitta says he was confronted with a classic documentarian's conundrum. On the one hand, he knew he had great material for his film. On the other hand, he knew including Booker Wright's comments in his film could place Booker in grave danger since Mississippi was such a hot spot for racial violence and intimidation at that time.

"I said to him, 'Well, look, this is brave of you to say that, but this movie will go all over the country. They'll see it and they could come and kill you.'  He said, 'Well, so be it. I want to be heard.'  I said, 'If you change your mind, you can call me and say, “Don't show it.”’”

Booker Wright never changed his mind, and just as Frank had feared, the reaction in Greenwood swift and harsh. Because of complaints from white customers, Booker chose to leave the restaurant where he had worked for 25 years. Later , he was also badly beaten.

"He found himself in the hospital the next morning," Frank remembers. "They beat him something terrible.  He was wounded all over his body. They didn't kill him. That, to me, was amazing that they didn't kill him. 

"I called him and got him in the hospital," Frank says.  "I said, 'I'm coming down to see you.' He goes, 'No, no. I've done enough for you. I don't ever want to see you ever again.' I said, 'What's wrong? I'm a friend.' He said, 'It's okay, you're not really allowed to come see me.' He said that would just add too much fire to the whole thing."

And that was the last time Frank ever spoke to Booker.

And that’s where Yvette Johnson’s part of the story comes in.  Booker Wright was Yvette’s grandfather, but she never knew him. He died a year before she was born, and she grew up in California, far from her extended family in Mississippi.  As an adult, Yvette found herself longing to know more about her family's history. In 2007, after the birth of her second son, Yvette decided to take the initiative.

"I have a fantastic Aunt Vera who loves to tell stories," Yvette says. "I called her one afternoon and just asked her 1,000 questions.  And she shared her whole life with me, which was fantastic, and through that I could see sort of the story of the South. But she also shared with me the story of her father, the sort of person he was like. There was a definite shift in her tone when she talked about Booker Wright.  And it was like a seed was planted.  And I just wanted to know more about him."

But try as she might, there was little Yvette could learn about her grandfather. He'd been born on a plantation and taken from his mother at a young age to be raised by another family. Though illiterate, Booker had managed by sheer force of personality to get a job at Lusco's Restaurant in Greenwood, Mississippi at the age of 14. He rose through the ranks to become a waiter at the restaurant, and was beloved by his white customers for the way he recited the menu. Yvette was told that through thrift and hard work, Booker saved enough money to open his own cafe on the black side of town. He called it “Booker's Place.”

 Yvette says, "He was a well-respected businessman who had found sort of a balance between being successful as a waiter in the white community where he was known, enjoyed, cared about --he had what many whites at the time would have called friends. But he also was very well-respected in the black community because he had his own restaurant. "

Yvette might have stopped her family search there, satisfied that her grandfather had persevered and succeeded against the odds, except for one thing. Her grandfather, she was told, had once appeared on television during the height of the Civil Rights turmoil in Mississippi and said something rather inflammatory. Yvette didn't know what he said, or when or where the film might have aired.

 "I thought it was like the 5pm news", Yvette says. "Just, like, you know, between the weather and someone's house burning down, that they'd stopped this black guy on the street." 

Years of searching for the missing snippet of her grandfather speaking on camera had yielded nothing. But in March of 2011, the film found Yvette.

Raymond De Felitta had decided to make a sequel to his father's Mississippi film, and was trying to track down Booker Wright's descendants, to see what had become of the children Booker had spoken of so movingly.  When Raymond found Yvette, he sent her the footage she had heard about, but never seen.

"I was amazed that it was the piece that it was", Yvette says of first seeing Booker's speech. "It wasn't sort of an angry moment, not thinking about the consequences. He knew what he was doing.

"My heart broke for him as I watched it and he talked about the daily humiliation. And part of me wanted to sort of reach back and comfort him. I still didn't really understand 1965 Greenwood, I didn't realize how much jeopardy he was putting himself in by saying those things." 

Yvette was hooked. Within weeks of meeting Raymond, the two of them were off to Mississippi with a film crew in tow.  They set out to see how Greenwood had changed since Booker's time, and to find out what legacy, if any, Booker--and Frank De Felitta--had left behind.


"You know, it was great," says Ray. "To actually envision my dad in 1965 there, and I'm actually sitting in the same restaurant.  I'm wandering around with a film crew in the same town.  That's the part of the magic ride of filmmaking."

And being in Greenwood brought Yvette new understanding of Booker's legacy in that town. "The impact of what he said was really felt in the white community because so many whites knew him, so many whites felt they had friendship with him," she says.  "And to hear him say, 'No this isn't friendship. This is humiliation for me...' It was a wake-up call."

Raymond's film about the experience--"Booker's Place"--premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival this spring.    It's now also available on-line.

Coincidentally, a Dateline NBC producer had also found that old documentary about Mississippi deep in the NBC News vaults.  Drawn to the power of Booker's words, he, too, decided to set out for Greenwood, Mississippi last, to discover what the town had become and what had become of Booker's descendants.  Along the way he found Frank, and Raymond, and Yvette, and told their story too--which is now also the story of NBC's reporting on race relations in America, then, and now. 

The result is Sunday night's episode of Dateline--"Finding Booker's Place"--a powerful look back at a troubled time in America's past, and a look at race relations in present day Greenwood, Mississippi.  Booker Wright's words come alive again, too, in the broadcast, as all the people who Booker touched remember an ordinary man who had a remarkable moment.  

"I think sometimes in life there are these magical moments and you don't know when one is coming," says Yvette.  "But I just think you know when you're in it. And it's time to stand up  for what you believe and to express what matters to you.  And if you don't seize the opportunity, you feel like you've compromised yourself.  And so to me that's the biggest takeaway: if we just keep our eyes open and if we're willing to take a chance, to take a risk, then we can all make a difference.”


Watch the full episode online: