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Was singing ‘minstrel’ waiter in whites-only restaurant killed for this tape in which he finally tells the truth about his customers? Granddaughter launches quest for truth
PUBLISHED: 13:24 EST, 15 July 2012 | UPDATED: 05:27 EST, 16 July 2012
It was the height of racial tension during the Civil Rights era when a documentary maker trained his camera on Booker Wright, a white-suited waiter at a white-only restaurant in Mississippi.
The journalist had only hoped to capture a piece of the South in the spring of 1966, a grown man who was hired to sing the menu to wealthy diners. However, when Mr Wright finished his performance of the day’s specials, he looked into the camera and launched into a heartbreaking monologue of what it meant to be a black man working in a segregated restaurant.
‘Some people are nice. Some is not. Some call me Booker, some call me John, some call me Jim. Some call me n*****. All that hurts, but you have to smile,’ he says.
‘The meaner the man be, the more you smile, although you’re crying on the inside. Although you’re wondering what else can I do? Sometimes he’ll tip you, sometimes he’ll say, “I’m not going to top the n*****, don’t look for no tip.”‘
Standing up: Booker Wright was a waiter at a white-only restaurant when he spoke out against the pain of racism in 1960s Mississippi
Mr Wright’s cameo in Frank DeFellita’s NBC documentary, ‘Mississippi: A Self-Portrait,’ was just two minutes, but it cost him dearly.
By revealing that he was not just a mindless servant and was in fact a man who had feelings and ambitions, he became a target. He was brutally beaten, the restaurant he owned on the black side of town was firebombed and seven years later, he was murdered.
Four and a half decades later, Mr DeFellita’s son and Mr Wright’s granddaughter have come together to find answers about that fateful scene — why Mr Wright stuck his neck out and whether it really did lead to his killing.
Yvett Johnson and Ray DeFellita each began searching for Mr Wright separately.
Ms Johnson, Mr Wright’s granddaughter, grew up in a wealthy gated community in San Diego, California — far from the racism and poverty that haunted her grandfather. She started her journey when she had children of her own and began digging up her family’s history, looking for her roots.
Partners: Yvett Johnson, Mr Wright’s granddaughter, and Ray DeFellita, the son of the original filmmaker, tracked down what happened to Mr Wright after the documentary aired
Retaliation: Mr Wright was badly beaten after the documentary aired
Mr DeFellita remembers watching his father’s documentary about Mississippi as a child. Even then, it stuck with him — largely because of Mr Wright’s heartbreaking monologue. He became interested in tracking down Mr Wright’s family to find out what had become of him after his father’s documentary aired.
They met when Mr DeFellita posted the footage of Mr Wright on the Internet and Ms Johnson reached out to him.
Together, they produced a documentary of their own in 2011, ‘Booker’s Place: A Mississippi Story.’ It debuted at New York’s famous TriBeCa Film Festival this year.
Mr Wright’s appearance on the NBC documentary was a courageous, even selfless, act at the time. Frank DeFellita, who had been warned about Civil Rights violence before traveling to Mississippi, knew that if he aired the interview, it would put Mr Wright in danger and possibly get him killed.
‘I had a talk with Booker and said “Do you really want to do this?” This is going to air all over the South and they’re going to watch you, in a sense, ridicule them as being fools,’ Frank DeFellita, now 90, told his son for the documentary.
His response: ‘The time has come, I’ve got to talk the way I feel.’
The 1965 interview with Mr Wright is both chilling and uplifting.
He recounts painful interactions with racist customers who seem him as a black servant, rather than a fellow man.
‘Don’t talk to him like that, that’s a good n*****, that’s my n*****,’ he imitates one customer as saying.
‘Yes sir, boss. I’m your n*****,’ is his response.
‘I’m trying to make a living. Why? I’ve got three children. I want them to get an education. I wasn’t fortunate enough to ‘get an education, but I want them to get it. And they’re doing good,’ he explains.
Searching: Frank DeFellita was hoping to tell the story of the Civil Rights struggle with his 1966 NBC documentary that featured Mr Wright
‘That’s what I’m struggling for. I don’t want this and I don’t want that. But I just don’t want my children to have to go through what I go through here.’
Shortly after the documentary aired — it was only shown once — Mr Wright was beaten badly by residents of the small Mississippi town where he lived and fired from the restaurant where he worked.
Eventually, he opened a small restaurant of his own — a gathering place for the black community that was visited by the likes of blues legend BB King.
Seven years after the film aired, a black diner walked into Mr Wright’s cafe and shot him dead.
Ms Johnson is convinced the killer was paid by someone in the white community as payback for speaking out.
Video of the fateful interview with Mr Wright: