The East Mississippi Correctional Facility called. Prisoner Lloyd “Blackie” Cork wants to meet his victim’s granddaughter, Yvette Johnson. Cork is classified as criminally insane, and this scares Johnson. Nonetheless, the Ahwatukee mother is traveling to Mississippi to meet the man in October.
Five years ago, Johnson didn’t even know Cork existed. Now she is the co-producer of the nationally acclaimed documentary “Booker’s Place: A Mississippi Story,” which centers around the story of her grandfather, who was murdered by Cork. The film will be screened Sept. 13 at Tempe Center for the Arts.
The daughter of a professional football player, Johnson grew up in a wealthy white San Diego community, where she felt disconnected from her roots.
“I had conflicted feelings about what it meant to be black,” Johnson said.
When the second of her two sons was born in Ahwatukee, a predominantly white area, Johnson wanted to find an identity that matched her skin tone.
“I just started to wonder if they would have similar experiences, and I wanted them to have what I didn’t have, which was a sense of meaning to their color,” she said. “I really wanted my kids to have a sense of heritage and a sense of roots and a knowledge of what they came from, but I didn’t know myself.”
In 2007, Johnson began researching her family history as part of a class she was enrolled in at Arizona State University. She knew her family was from Mississippi, that her father grew up on a plantation and that her mother grew up poor. She had no idea that her grandfather, Booker Wright, was a civil rights hero, she said.
Wright, a waiter in rural Greenwood, Miss., appeared in a 1966 documentary, speaking with an honesty that was dangerous at the time about how it felt when his white customers treated him badly and how he didn’t want his children to have the same experiences.
“All that hate, but you have to smile… The meaner the man be, the more you smile,” Wright said in the documentary. “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 be able to get the job that they feel qualified. That’s what I’m struggling for.”
Seven years after Wright appeared in the documentary, he was shot. He was working in the restaurant when he and Cork had an argument. When Cork refused to leave the restaurant, Wright hit him in the head with the butt of a gun. Cork returned that night with a sawed-off shotgun.
The documentary, “Mississippi: A Self Portrait,” originally aired on NBC. The director’s son, Raymond DeFelitta, posted it to YouTube in 2011, where filmmaker David Zellerford saw it.
“Booker Wright comes on camera, and he just has this very passionate and painful monologue, and he performs it for the camera so beautifully and eloquently,” Zellerford said. “I called Raymond the next morning, and I said, ‘We have to find out what happened to Booker Wright and his children.’”
Zellerford quickly found Johnson, and the trio worked together to create the new “Booker’s Place” film.
Wright’s story is that of a classic hero, Johnson said.
“I think everyone really hopes for that, that in our lives we’ll have a moment where it can literally change the world. To think that this illiterate waiter ... said something that was felt throughout the nation is amazing,” she said.
“Booker’s Place: A Mississippi Story” is part of the summer film series for ASU’s Project Humanities, an initiative aimed at connecting diverse fields to the concept of humanity. More information on the project can be found at humanities.asu.edu.
The Amazon kindle book “Searching For Booker Wright,” written by Johnson, will be available for a free download from Sept.12 to Sept. 14.