Speaking to a standing-room-only crowd at Hale Auditorium, the ABC News anchor and correspondent and U-M alumna shared her personal experiences with race relations growing up, at the U-M and in broadcast journalism, and told of a chance meeting with King himself.
I dont consider myself that old, yet I remember segregation, even though I was born and raised in Chicago, Simpson said, telling the audience of a trip with her parents to a family members wedding in Georgia she took at age 5. At first the journey was funshe explored the train and ran down the aisles with several white childrenbut then she was forced to move with her mother to a different train car where there were only Black people, and as the train entered Kentucky, the two were taken to the Jim Crow car.
At age 11, Simpson and her family again went to the South to visit family members. After traveling all day, her father was told at countless motels that there were no available rooms, Simpson said, even though each establishment boasted a Vacancy sign. The family was forced to sleep in their car at the side of the road. The next morning her father was again refused a cup of coffee at a truck stop.
I strained to read No Jews, no dogs, no n___ allowed, Simpson said, describing the sign emblazoned on one of the truck stops windows, Dogs came before n__. N__. That word: I would hear it many times in my life. It stung like a bee. It made my stomach churn. It was a frightening time.
Later on in the trip, Simpson said she realized that to be Black in America was to be different. And not different in a good wayinferior, not as good as, sub-human in fact, below dog. I came back from that trip a very different little girl determined not to let white people or white society define who I was and what I could and would be.
As she grew older, Simpson decided she wanted to go into journalism, but encountered skepticism from her parents, who thought she should be a teacher, and from college admissions counselors, who told her that Black people and women do not go into journalism.
Nevertheless, Simpson became one of 65 Black undergraduate students at the U-M in 1960 and experienced more racism that, she said, prepared her for her professional career. The house mother of her residence hall called Simpson and the two other Black women in the building her Negresses.
White students forced us to segregate ourselves, Simpson said. In the cafeteria, white women moved if Simpson or her friends sat down at the same table. And at the mixers in the Michigan Union, Black students would go, but nobody mixed with us.
Simpson said that at graduation time she was the only journalism student who did not have a job lined up, even though she had interviewed at all the campus job fairs. After returning to Chicago to work for a public library, Simpson said the U-M journalism department chair found her a job at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama.
I went to the South at an incredibly historic period in our American history. I was there when Governor Wallace stood in the schoolhouse door, barring the admission of Black students to the University of Alabama. Living in the South at the time, Simpson commented, meant not being able to try on clothes in stores, having to sit only on the second floor of movie theaters and not seeing any people of color on television or in magazines.
But Dr. Martin Luther King, and the courageous Black and white people who risked life and limb to join in his struggle, changed America. And it changed for the better.
After moving back to Chicago and becoming the only Black news radio reporter in the city, Simpson was able to meet King face-to-face. King was moving his campaign to Chicago in 1966, but the public and the media were not sure why. While all the reporters were waiting at the airport for King to arrive, Simpson discovered the hotel he was staying in and on what floor. She waited near the elevator all night in order to see him. King finally came into the hall to see her, Simpson said, because he appreciated her persistence. He whispered to her that he was in Chicago to fight for desegregated housing and to challenge the citys administration. She received the story she needed to break into journalism.
He put me on the map, Simpson said. I will never forget that. I think Im here because he gave me some credibility. When King was assassinated, Simpson said, It was one of the saddest days of my life.
King died without completing his work, but he did accomplish a lot, Simpson stressed. A civil rights law, public accommodations law, a voting rights act, war on poverty and the desegregation of the South are just a few of his accomplishments, she said.
Kings non-violent protesting was just as courageous as more aggressive tactics, Simpson noted.
Face their bullets; we will take their bullets, we will take their rocks . . . He faced them. After reading a passage of Kings writing, Simpson commented that he offers strong words that should compel us to finish his work.
Racism is alive and well in America, Simpson said, citing the racist hate mail she receives several times a year and describing the stereotypical comments she has heard from top network executives. Its always there. We [Black people] confront it everyday. I am reminded of it everyday.
During her travel to 27 countries on five continents, Simpson said she has been regarded as American first, not as Black. But back here in America, were fractionalizing and stratifying. We seem to have to pigeonhole and label everybody, put them into categories. I have pride in my culture and heritage, but lets face it, were all American and were all more alike than we are different.
At the end of her talk, Simpson, who has established several scholarships at the University for minorities and women who study broadcast journalism, presented a $5,000 check to the Martin Luther King Jr. scholarship program. We can all do our part, Simpson advised.