Tributes pour in for Robert Booker

Sandra ClarkLet's Talk

Update: Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity Inc. will conduct their Omega Service Wednesday, February 28, 2024, 10 a.m. The family will receive friends, 10:30 a.m.-noon, with services to follow at Tabernacle Missionary Baptist Church, 2137 Martin Luther King Jr. Ave., with Pastor Vincent M. Jones Jr. the eulogist and the Rev. Dr. Harold Middlebrook the officiant.

Interment will be Thursday, February 29, 2024, at East Tennessee State Veterans Cemetery, 2200 E Governor John Sevier Highway, Knoxville, at 10 a.m.

In lieu of flowers, the family asks that memorial contributions be made in honor of Dr. Robert J. Booker to the Beck Cultural Exchange Center or Tabernacle Missionary Baptist Church. Obituary link.

Robert J. Booker has died at age 88. He passed on February 22, 2024, at his home where he had been under hospice care. He was born April 14, 1935. He lived in Knoxville his entire life except for his military service. He represented Knoxville in the Tennessee General Assembly and was hired by Mayor Kyle Testerman as his administrative assistant, a job that would be called deputy mayor today.

Photo of Robert J. Booker during his days as a student at Knoxville College

Booker had it all – a tall and handsome man who loved to sing and dance.

The last time I talked with Bob was in September 2019 at the Bijou Theatre. He kindly agreed to sign a program for the young man I had brought to the performance. I hope Jay treasures his opportunity to meet one of Knoxville’s most distinguished citizens.

In the tradition of Martin Luther King, Booker was non-violent. But he never backed down as he achieved his goals. Theotis Robinson talks about being in high school when the slightly older Mr. Booker came by to organize marches to integrate Knoxville’s lunch counters.

Betty Bean relates her recollections here.

But the best tribute comes from his colleagues at the Beck Cultural Exchange Center, which Booker helped to found and where he worked for several years as executive director. The current director, Reneé Kesler, wrote:

“Remembering A Remarkable Man

“Today (February 22, 2024), we are saddened by the passing of our beloved Dr. Robert J. Booker. We stand with his family, friends and colleagues from all walks of life to honor a remarkable civil rights leader, historian and humanitarian who has forever changed our city and our world.

“He opened doors for everyone to enter, removed barriers for everyone to have a seat at the table, and paid the price for all to purchase a ticket.

“Dr. Booker discovered history that had not been written, and he shared it generously with everyone. He was a giant among giants and his legacy is unmatched. He was a selfless humanitarian who lived among us, and we will never forget his contributions.

“Thank you, Dr. Booker”

And if you are wondering about that title, Robert Booker received an honorary doctorate of humanities degree from the University of Tennessee on Feb. 12, 2024.

Here is a story I wrote in 2019 about the Red Summer anniversary.

And here is one Larry Van Guilder wrote about Maurice Mays, the young biracial man who was executed by the state after he was convicted of murdering a white woman. The evidence was slim to non-existent and the jury deliberated just 30 minutes. Mays’ arrest triggered the Red Summer riots in Knoxville.

Booker wrote “The Heat of a Red Summer,” a fictionalized version of the Maurice Mays story.

Sandra Clark is editor/CEO of Knox TN Today Inc.

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