40 years later, Mississippi waiter's 'magical moment' renews race relations

Dateline NBC: WARNING:  Some of the language in this story could be considered shocking to some.

The Mississippi Delta is thousands of miles and a lifetime away from Southern California where Raymond De Fellita and Yvette Johnson grew up.

Ray is white and pushing 50. He was raised in the Hollywood Hills, the son of a successful filmmaker and novelist. Yvette, is black and more than 10 years younger than Ray. She grew up in a gated community in San Diego, the daughter of former NFL football star.

Until the spring of 2011, the two of them had never met. But in a strange twist of fate, both discovered that they shared a unique bond, rooted in an NBC News documentary that aired only once, on a Sunday evening in May 1966.

The film, called Mississippi:A Self Portrait, was written, produced and directed by Ray’s father, Frank De Fellita. Yvette’s grandfather, Booker Wright, was its star.  Although he made only a brief cameo appearance in the film, it was an appearance that would have a lasting impact of the lives of both Booker and Frank.  And nearly 50 years later, it would draw Ray and Yvette together on a project to find the meaning of that single moment captured on a grainy snippet of film.

As a child, Ray watched the films his father had made when he worked as a producer for NBC News in the 1960s. There were documentaries about the Battle of the Bulge, the Ghosts of England, and Adoption. But Ray’s favorite by far, was Mississippi: A Self-Portrait.

“And I remember when we used to screen the films at home. They were, by then, 10 years old.” Ray says. “They looked to me much older, you know?  ‘Cause it was the 1970s and everyone in those movies was wearing thin ties.  And it’s in black and white and it’s like another world.  But I remember seeing Mississippi and finding the film striking. Largely because of Booker Wright.”

Frank De Felitta had set out for Mississippi to make his film in the Spring of 1965–a perilous time in the Civil Rights Era.  It was less than a year after the murders of three Civil Rights workers who’d been helping Mississippi blacks register to vote.  Nearly 40 black churches had been burned to the ground in Mississippi the previous summer. And the Delta cotton town of Greenwood– where Frank ultimately shot much of his film– had seen plenty of trouble. Ten years earlier, Emmit Till—a 15-year-old visiting from Chicago–had been lynched nearby for whistling at a white woman. And Greenwood was home to Byron de la Beckwith–a man who, at the time, had already been twice tried and acquitted for the murder of Civil Rights leader Medgar Evers. Frank knew it would be a dangerous undertaking.

“The FBI scared me,” Frank remembers. “They told me, ‘We think you’re crazy. You’re not going to be welcomed. And we can’t help you. All we can give you are some phone numbers. All throughout Mississippi we have agents.'”

According to Frank, Booker Wright came close to not even being in the film because Frank never intended to interview blacks.

“The whole idea of the Mississippi picture was not to do the story of black angst. We know that.  We were trying to see whether Mississippians, white Mississippians, can reconcile themselves to a better way of treating the blacks.”

For weeks Frank De Filleta says he wandered around Greenwood, sampling white opinion. For the most part, whites defended segregation and told Frank that they believed blacks were happy with the status quo.

“I feel that God had a purpose in creating the races separate,” one middle-aged white woman told Frank and his crew.   “I am so proud of negroes who are so proud of being negroes. They are what God made them.  And I’m proud of being white because I am what my white race has made me. I am white today because my parents practiced segregation.”

When Frank gathered the town’s leaders, they told him they thought the races were getting along just fine in Greenwood.  “I think our colored people are very happy, extremely happy here in Mississippi,” said one of them.  “I think they feel the same way about us.”

Then one day, a member of Frank’s crew suggested that he meet a black waiter who worked at a “whites only” restaurant in Greenwood.

“He came to me one day and said, ‘I got a wonderful black man.  His name is Booker Wright.  And he’s a waiter at Lusco’s Restaurant.  And what he does, is a minstrel scene.  He does a singsong of the menu.  And that’s the only menu they have.  People wanna know the menu, they get, ‘Booker, go tell ’em.’  And he’ll sing them the song of the menu. And it’s absolutely delightful.'”

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