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July 12, 2012

Host: Steve Goldstein

Booker Wright: A Mississippi Story

  |   Video
  • Yvette Johnson is a Phoenix resident whose grandfather, Booker Wright, appeared in a 1966 NBC documentary about racism in the southern United States. What he said while the cameras were rolling changed his life forever. Yvette talks about her grandfather’s heroic story that’s featured in a new film she co-produced.
  • Yvette
Category: Culture   |   Keywords: NBC documentary , racism, cameras, heroic story,

View Transcript
Steve Goldstein: Tonight we meet a Phoenix woman whose research for a family history-writing project at ASU led her on a remarkable journey into her grandfather's heroic past. It's a story that's featured this Sunday on "NBC dateline," but the real story started back in 1965, as David Majure explains.

David Majure: Booker Wright was an African-American businessman living in Greenwood, Mississippi, in 1965. That's the year a filmmaker working for NBC interviewed booker in a documentary about race relations.

Booker Wright: Rib-eye steak, wild mushrooms.

David Majure: Booker owned his own café but also worked as a waiter in a whites-only restaurant. He talked about what that was like.

Booke Wright: Some call me Booker. Some call me John. Some call me Jim. Some call me [audio deleted]. All that hurts, but you have to smile. Always learn to smile. The meaner the man be, the more you smile, although you're crying on the inside.

David Majure: Booker’s honest words had serious repurcusions. Booker lost his job, was harassed and beaten by police. Seven years later, Booker was murdered. Now, decades later, a film has been made that explores Booker's life, death, and the role his father's documentary played in both. "Bookers' place: A Mississippi Story" was screened at the 2012 Tribeca film festival. Booker's granddaughter, Yvette Johnson, is a co-producer and also featured in the film.

Yvette Johnson: I am visiting greenwood searching for information about my grandfather. His name was Booker Wright, and he owned a café called booker's place.

Uncredited: Booker's place was a very powerful place, a place that B.B. King would go to until 4:00 the next morning.

Yvette Johnson: 1966, he went on a national news program on NBC, and he talked about what it was like to be a Black Man in Greenwood.

Raymond De Felitta: This was a film my father made in 1966. He's 90 years old this summer, and he never really knew what impact this movie had. But a few weeks ago, I put this movie on the internet, and all of a sudden we started hearing this was something people have been looking for for years.

Steve Goldstein: And joining me now is Yvette Johnson, Booker Wright’s grand-daughter and co-producer of the film, Booker’s Place. Welcome, Yvette.

Yvette Johnson: Thank you so much for having me on.

Steve Goldstein: How much did you know about your grandfather's story to begin with? What made you so curious?

Yvette Johnson: Well, I had kids of my own. I grew up in California. My family is from Greenwood, Mississippi, so I grew up not really knowing what I came from. I really wanted my kids to have a sense of heritage. I knew my grandfather had owned a restaurant and that he'd been murdered, but I didn't know about his statements to the national news team.

Steve Goldstein: Does it seem remarkable to you that in 1966 there was a national television network doing an interview like this? Then, on top of that your grandfather was so bold to come out like that?

Yvette Johnson: The credit goes to NBC and to Frank De Felitta. Frank really had a vision and just a heart for African-Americans and what they were going through. And then of course my grandfather. The reasons he did what he did he took to his grave, but it was bold and it was dangerous, and it was very brave.

Steve Goldstein: How did you and the filmmaker connect for the documentary and then the NBC special?

Yvette Johnson: Well, I started blogging about it. The filmmaker -- and his father, frank, made the original film, Fr-- Raymond was going through his father's old documentaries and saw this footage of Booker Wright. In it, when my grandfather was speaking, he said part of why he endured the treatment he did was so that he could see his children have a better life. So Raymond had a question. Did Booker Wright's children fare better than he did? And so he found my blog, and we did this film together. Going through the NBC archives, he'd been pitching the story to his higher-ups for years, and they'd always said no. Finally, in the fall, they said, sure, you can revisit this story, only for him to find that we'd already made this film, so we connected, and the rest is history.

Steve Goldstein: With what most of us know about the civil rights movement, your grandfather would not have been something that would be a traditional character in that. We think of people as younger or people coming from the North to have an impact. Were you surprised? Did it make you even prouder that he would have done something like this?

Yvette Johnson: I was very surprised. One of the things that's been fantastic about this experience is that I've really gotten an education in civil rights and in African-American history here in the states. I think a lot of times we're taught these big names -- Martin Luther King Jr., Medgar Evers, malcolm x -- and we don't realize it took nameless, faceless people whose names aren't written in history books. I think it's important for us to realize that: that really one person's actions can make a difference.

Steve Goldstein: Tell us more about the blog. Is the book already available on Amazon?

Yvette Johnson: That's right. I’m working on a large book project that's really sort of the story of Booker Wright and my effort to find him. In the meantime, I have published a book that's available on Amazon. It's a collection of blog posts and journal entries that sort of chronicle how this whole thing went along the way.

Steve Goldstein: How emotional are some of the entries? Will people really find out what Yvette is thinking?

Yvette Johnson: They are. It really was sort of a place for me to go and just put my feelings out. I mean, it's very raw. It is. It's who I am.

Steve Goldstein: When people hear about race relations, we like to think that, after the civil rights movement, things got a lot better, and I would think most people would in fact say that. But when you think about race relations in this country, why is it still so edgy? Why are we not able to talk as much about these things as we should be?

Yvette Johnson: I think people get offended, and I think we have these extremes, these very loud voices. If you say, gosh, I wonder if there was some race-based bias on that, someone might say, well, you have a chip on your shoulder. You're playing the race card. If you say I don’t think there was race-based bias, people will say, you're a racist. You're insensitive. My grandfather talked about how it feels to be on the receiving end of racism, and he was just very vulnerable and humble, but he just said, this hurts. He said I want to cry when they talk to me this way. It's not always about huge issues like immigrants coming to our country or affirmative action but that really behind those issues are individuals who just sometimes feel humiliated.

Steve Goldstein: How different is racism for African-Americans specifically today than it would have been in the '60s? There's institutional racism we hear about. Do people cross the street if they see a group of black people? But they’re not really keeping black people down in a sense. How do we figure out where the racism is?

Yvette Johnson: It's very complicated and, I think, sometimes not necessarily that it's a worse situation, but it can feel like a worse situation because it is less obvious. I think, if we're less volatile in our rhetoric when we talk about race, we can talk more about institutional racism. To see racism more so, we have to rely on statistics or studies, because it's not as obvious as, say, a murder case or having a cross burnt on your lawn or the Ku Klux Klan or something like that. I have to say the world, Greenwood, we've come so far. Greenwood was a terrorist state really for blacks. My grandfather was pistol-whipped by a white police officer after appearing in this clip, and I heard about that from a judge who knew that it happened then, but no one pressed charges. It was known, and that was just the lay of the land. That couldn't happen now, and thank goodness.

Steve Goldstein: There are some who’re concerned, though that that's what many hispanics and latinos may be experiencing when it comes to s-b 10-70, might experience. Do you see parallels?

Yvette Johnson: I do, of course. The idea that you could look like you don't belong and get pulled over and, if you don't have the right documentation with you, if you left your purse at home, you could be thrown into jail. It's scary. And think again, I think -- not to keep harping on this same point, but I do think we need to put ourselves sometimes in other people's shoes and see their humanity. Yes, people are coming from a different country sometimes without proper documentation or maybe they were brought here when they were very young and they grew up here, but why did they come here? Because they wanted a better life for themselves. They’re not evil people. We need to find a way to help them achieve that dream in a way that works for everyone.

Steve Goldstein: Yvette, just a few seconds left, but, when a documentary is made, the documentarian always thinks, oh, gosh, if I could have kept this in -- are you pleased with how this turned out?

Yvette Johnson: Oh, yeah. Raymond is a fantastic storyteller. He did us proud.

Top Two Primary Election Initiative

  |   Video
  • The pros and cons of a plan to change the way primary elections are conducted in Arizona. Guests include former Phoenix mayor Paul Johnson, who supports the plan, and political consultant Jaime Molera, who opposes it.
  • Paul Johnson - Chair,Open Government Committee Jaime Molera - Political Consultant
Category: Elections   |   Keywords: primary elections,

View Transcript
Steve Goldstein: Good evening and welcome to "horizon." I’m Steve Goldstein in for ted simons. Earlier this month, supporters of a ballot initiative filed more than 365,000 petition signatures. That's over 100,000 more than they needed to put the constitutional amendment on the ballot. The signatures must still be validated, and the initiative has to get past legal challenges to make it on the ballot. In the meantime, we take a look at the pros and cons of the open elections/open government act with Paul Johnson, a former Phoenix mayor who chairs the open government committee that's backing the constitutional amendment, and Jaime Molera, former republican state superintendent of schools and a partner in Molera-Alvarez, a government and public affairs firm. Why would the new open primary system be better than what we have?

Paul Johnson: Well, the open elections, open government initiative has three big changes. The first thing is, it stops subsidizing political primaries and replaces it with a system where every voter can vote in every election. You have one big general primary that everyone runs in, and the top two vote getters move to the next level. The second thing that it does is it creates competition in every race. What happens today is, in 26 out of 30 seats in Arizona, the districts have been so gerrymandered that there is no competition. Pretty much whoever wins the primary ends up winning the general, and often they have no opponent whatsoever. With the changes, every single time, there would be a run-off election. And the third thing that it does, because elected officials, incumbents, know they'll have to appeal to people in the other party, the independents, it creates an incentive for them to cross the aisle, and to go to work for people in the other party, and to listen to people who oftentimes don't think exactly like they do. The last is probably the most important. What we see happening in our country and our state is that the partisan political process is being so polarized that people are no longer working with one another and looking for good reasonable public policy that is in the best interests of people in the public.

Steve Goldstein: Any concerns about the proposal?

Jaime Molera: Huge concerns about the proposal. Every time we have an initiative to reform the system and to make it more inclusive and more balanced, we end up getting more polarization in our state and get less participation in our state. At the end of the day, the hard work of getting people out to vote is just that. People have to understand the importance of that. And I don't take away from the goals of what they're trying to do here, but it just seems like every time we've had major reforms, it's gotten worse for Arizona.

Steve Goldstein: What do those have in common, though, other than wanting to be good government reforms?

Jaime Molera: Alright, I’ll give you an example in 1986 when we limited campaign contributions, they said this proposition would provide a fair and balanced system. In ’92 when we did term limits, they said term limits will encourage broader participation in government. In 1998 when we had clean elections, they said clean elections would improve the integrity of Arizona government by encouraging citizen participation; in 2000 when we did the redistricting commission, this is an unparalleled opportunity. 2000 was the last reform that was passed. 10 years later, you had Arizona legislature that had 21 republicans out of 30 total, and you had 40 republicans out of 60 total. So you saw that all of these reforms that tried to make the system more together actually drove it apart.

Steve Goldstein: Is it fair to lump this initiative in with those?

Paul Johnson: Well first, when you have a patient that is very sick on the table, you don't walk away from them and let them die. We have a patient that's very, very sick. The partisan process is so divided that we are in big trouble. Liberty is in big trouble if we don't find a way to get these two to bridge the gap. The second thing I would tell you is that ours is different in this way. The others were regulatory in nature, trying to stop candidates or stop voters from doing something. Ours is opening up the process to allow everyone to vote in every election. At the end of the day, that's really what this campaign is about. There is opposition from lobbyists, from incumbent legislators, and from the two political parties, and I do think there's a valid point of view from people who are supporters of the parties, who like what the two parties have brought to us. But many have given up on both of those two parties. But what we have that’s happened today is almost a third of the voters have given up on both of the parties. They've become independents. They've left the parties. We have to do something to address those voters and bring them back into the process.

Steve Goldstein: Jaime let’s go off on a little bit of a tangent. When it comes to paying for the primary elections, as paul mentions, about a third of Arizona voters are now independent. Why should the state keep paying for a party for the republicans and for the democrats where the independents aren't really included?

Jaime Molera: I think the "Wall Street Journal" had a good story that ran this last week where the United States is very much in two camps. You have a section of Democrats that really believe government needs to do more. You have Republicans that believe government is doing too much and needs to do a lot less. But we're split right down the middle, and both parties now represent, I think, where America is. But the thing about this initiative that's a little bit disingenuous: it allows for people to still have their parties identified, so it's not completely open. I’m still running as Jaime Molera, Republican, and Paul Johnson, Democrat. At the end of the day, you'll still have the party machines that are going to be very aggressive, very active. And in my opinion, it might lead more to the party machine mentality where they'll start selecting those top two people that end up running. Great example was the city of Phoenix mayor's election and also Tempe's mayor election. Those were not non-partisan, those were very partisan.

Steve Goldstein: Some will say, wow, if the power brokers pick them, will I end up with the people who aren’t extreme. I'll end up with the business-friendly candidates, which maybe twenty years ago people wouldn’t have wanted but they might want them more now.

Jaime Molera: If you look at the power brokers I’m talking about -- a lot of the precinct committee leaders in both the Democratic and Republican sides of the aisle that I think tend to be much more polarized, and they want candidates that are very narrow in their focus -- to me, that's unfortunate.

Paul Johnson: The parties have been involved in nonpartisan elections for many, many years. I ran for council in 1985. I ran for mayor in 1990. I was successful in both of those. I can tell you the parties were there. I won in almost a 2-1 republican district as a registered Democrat. I’m an independent today but, as a mayor, I also won. Here's what you know when you win in a nonpartisan system: you have to go appeal to people in the other party, you have to talk to them. You have to listen to them. If you look at your city government, today it’s twice as popular as its legislative counterpart. I would also tell you that what is happening today inside our state legislature and inside the partisan races, because they’ve become so gerrymandered, they're not addressing -- almost every candidate -- voters who are in the other party or who are independent. They're only having to address what is now about 4% of the public who will vote in a Republican primary and 4% who will vote in a democratic primary. That's leaving us with a much more extreme system. You don't have to go around the country to figure out whether this works. Just look at your cities right here.

Jaime Molera: Well, when you look at where it is put in place -- Nebraska is a good example -- the voter participation in that state has gone down ever since it's been put in place. This past year, in 2010 in the Arizona primary, we had a 30% participation rate. Now, granted that's not very good and I think we need to do a lot better, but there it was 22%. And Louisiana, where they've had open primaries for a long time -- and that's where we get the David Dukes of the world able to game the system and become one of the candidates -- they had a 23% participation rate. I believe they're committed to the end game of trying to get more Arizonans to vote, but I believe coming up with another silver bullet doesn't do it.

Paul Johnson: Here’s where I would agree with Jaime. This isn't a panacea. There is no panacea. I will say this is a system that's been tried. It works. The idea that it would elect more David Dukes -- David Dukes lost in that race in Louisiana. David Dukes win in this state in what seems like every election. By the way, on turn-out issues, Nebraska's had the system since 1933. I don't know how you really determine whether or not that had an effect on turn-out. Just because of the way they've been watching Nebraska over 33 years, I would be surprised to find out people were looking at turn-outs before and after 1933. But what I will say, is this isn't about turn-out. This is about trying to change the attitude of the elected officials once they end up in office to be willing and in fact to be incentivized to work with people on the other side.

Steve Goldstein: Jaime, how important should competitiveness be. There are some that will say we're going to end up in a lot of these races with the top two being Republicans and Democrats will actually have less power, a conservative versus a moderate Republican. Should we be concerned about that?

Jaime Molera: Absolutely we should. I think right now our system allows the top two philosophical points of view to allow the public to decide. Whether you like it or not, that's the case. Republican party and Democrat party really reflect our country. But one of the things that Paul mentioned, again we tried to deal with the gerrymandering in this, and it has not turned out the way it should have been, because every time we go this route and put these initiatives in place, we cannot adjust them because of Arizona's voter protection act. Even if it turns out to be a disaster, it's going to be very difficult to change these things. And that’s always the scary thing there.

Paul Johnson: All those other initiatives were experimental, they hadn’t been tried. This is one that has been tried. You can go to your city governments. They were implemented in the 1940s, I might add by Barry Goldwater, Newt Rosensweig, and Nicholas Udall. A coalition went out and implemented reforms, the biggest one of which was an open primary that was nonpartisan. Before that, the city was run on a partisan basis. The reason they were against it was because it had become corrupt. The partisanship controlled the issues, control drove the issues. The only thing that matters in a partisan system is who has the majority and who wants the majority. If you don't have the majority, you throw rocks. In a nonpartisan system, like cities, that doesn't have to happen, because you can work with people on the other side to get things done you see as being important.

Steve Goldstein: Is this initiative going to be aided by the fact that Governor Brewer and many Republican state lawmakers wanted to put a competing measure on? And some of the lawmakers even admitted it was to confuse voters.

Paul Johnson: Well, um, my guess is a couple of things. One, they gave us a lot of exposure. It costs a lot of money to go out and advertise to people, to talk to them about what your measure is about. We had them trying to confuse the voters by giving an alternative, putting it on the ballot. We now have a county attorney who says that we ought to make certain we take it to court so the voters can never have a chance to be able to vote on it. Both of those things are getting us exposure and giving us a chance to talk about it. We know from polling that voters, by a 2-1 measure, they support it. Candidly, I probably owe a debt of gratitude both to the county attorney and to the governor for making certain we get that exposure.

Steve Goldstein: Is this dangerous for people who oppose the initiative? Some people will say, wow. The people in power don't like this. Maybe I ought to think about it.

Jaime Molera: One of the things I'd point out is just go look at the last couple of open elections for the city of Phoenix. I mean, they didn't throw stones at the last council meeting, but there was a little shoving going on there, too. At the end of the day, partisanship is not a bad thing. It allows people to understand exactly where the two candidates stand. You have something like this put on the ballot, I’m afraid people are going to game the system. At the end of the day, I think you just need to be up-front with folks and recognize that getting out the vote is the most important thing.

Paul Johnson: People will always game the system. I don’t give anyone a promise they won’t game this one. Just like they’re gaming this one that exists now when you have fourteen Republicans who change over to being Green Party candidates in moderate districts. This doesn't stop people from being unethical. In the last election in the mayor's race, there was competition. The past republican mayor endorsed Greg Stanton. The past democratic mayor supported Wes Gullet. Not such a great pick for me, we didn’t end up doing so well. The point is, there was bipartisanship. People were crossing the aisle, working with folks on the other side. Greg is doing a good job now of reaching out, trying to work with people who opposed him, because he knows he'll be running in a race again four years from now, and he's going to have to get people on the other side.

Jaime Molera: But there's a big difference between the city of Phoenix and East Mesa or the East Valley. Let's be honest. If you were going to design a system that brings people together, then at the end of the day it has to come down to folks being willing to vote, and any single panacea is not going to get that.

Steve Goldstein: Very briefly about fifteen seconds left. Wouldn't we be better off if we had moderate republicans and moderate democrats?

Jaime Molera: I think that’s not the question that should be asked. The question is, if you had more voter participation, what kind of legislature would we have? I think if people really understood and were aggressive about getting out there -- they criticize tea party people, but they're organized and get out there and push for their candidates.

Steve Goldstein: Jaime, Paul, Thanks so much.