Emory O. Jackson, the Birmingham World, and the Fight for Civil Rights in Alabama

Emory O. Jackson
Courtesy Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, Fair use image

In the article below, Kimberley Mangun, an associate professor in the Department of Communication at the University of Utah, describes her ongoing research on the Birmingham (Alabama) World and its longtime editor, Emory O. Jackson. Mangun is writing a cultural biography of Jackson and the newspaper set against the backdrop of the local and national Civil Rights Movement.

“Emory Overton Jackson was born for battle.” Those words, in the 2006 Pulitzer Prize-winning book, The Race Beat, by Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff, sparked what has become for me a seven-year study of the man and his newspaper, the Birmingham World. Although Jackson was never directly involved in the Alabama civil rights struggles in the 1950s and 1960s, his journalistic voice described the movement’s goals, leaders, and “foot soldiers,” and helped persuade the world that equal rights should be supported.

Emory Jackson became my research focus in 2009 after I spent several days with Klibanoff and learned more about the editor. That research has taken me to archives at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, Birmingham Public Library, Atlanta University Center, and Emory University. I was granted special permission to review boxes of civil rights-era records that were discovered in the basement of Birmingham’s City Hall. I had the opportunity to spend several days in Detroit with Jackson’s last surviving sibling, Lovell, and a nephew, William. Later, I met them in Birmingham and joined them for Sunday service at Sardis Baptist Church, the Jackson family’s place of worship and birthplace of the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights (ACMHR).

I accumulated thousands of documents during research trips that lasted as long as a month and digitized each issue of the twice-weekly Birmingham World published between 1935 and 1975, the years that Emory Jackson edited and wrote for the newspaper. Through his words, I’ve learned why the man who “was born for battle” is a significant if understudied figure in journalism history and African-American history.

Jackson was born on September 8, 1908, in Buena Vista, Georgia, and moved to Birmingham when he was about eleven to join family who had relocated there. He graduated from Industrial High School, the first public high school for Negro students in that city. He earned a bachelor’s degree in 1932 from Morehouse College in Atlanta, and then he relocated to Dothan, Alabama, for a teaching position.

Jackson soon returned to Birmingham and began working at Westfield High School. He taught English, coached basketball, and supervised the campus newspaper. One student-reporter, Robert E. Johnson, later enjoyed a forty-year career with Jet. Johnson credited Jackson with inspiring him to pursue employment in journalism.

Jackson first became involved in the civil rights struggle in 1934, when he protested disparities he had encountered during a school district banquet. That decision cost him his job. But he wasn’t out of work for long. The editor of the Birmingham World, one of three papers owned by the Atlanta-based Scott family, hired Jackson to write a sports column. Within two years, Jackson was writing a syndicated news column known as “The Tip-Off,” and by the end of 1941, he had assumed editorial duties of the semiweekly World.

His first foray into crusading—a protest of the Freedom Train in 1947—was widely praised by readers and editors of other black newspapers. The whistle-stop journey of the train carrying dozens of documents from the National Archives had been conceived as a way to enable Americans to reflect on the meaning of citizenship at a time of post-war change. Yet Jackson protested plans to have separate lines for white and Negro visitors by contacting local officials, writing organizers with the American Heritage Foundation in New York City, and addressing it in editorials and columns. Organizers ultimately decided to forgo the scheduled stops in Mobile, Montgomery, and Tuscaloosa at the end of December 1947, rather than deal with white coordinators who obstinately refused to integrate the event.

Jackson advocated voting rights, too. He urged men and women in Jefferson County, which included the city of Birmingham, to register to vote, pay their annual poll tax of $1.50, and re-identify, a process that required people to reregister or risk being dropped from the voter roll. At the same time, he exposed ongoing civil rights violations by the three-member Board of Registrars that included posing tricky or ambiguous questions that seemed designed solely for the purpose of rejecting black applicants. And he published registration results in the World. For example, he printed the three-day tally ending on January 27, 1950: “PASSED (White, 139; Negro, 71), REJECTED (White, 2; Negro 62).” These reports underscored the critical need for federal enactment of laws governing voting rights.

Jackson also was a vocal critic of the escalating violence designed to block progress in the quest for civil rights in Alabama. Nine unsolved bombings by December 1950 prompted him to editorialize: “Race hate by a band of unknown and uncaught terrorists has turned Birmingham into a City of Bombings the past three years.” He wrote that people around the world would learn “of the mistreatment of Negroes in Birmingham” as a result of news stories about the anti-black attacks.

Jackson covered, as well, the historic founding in December 1955 of the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA). Reporting from the press table at Holt Street Baptist Church, Jackson described the speech delivered by Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. as a “tornado of freedom oratory” and provided readers with early glimpses of the young minister’s commitment to passive resistance. King in turn acknowledged Jackson as “one of the greats in our struggle for democracy and first-class citizenship.” During the ensuing thirteen-month bus boycott, the World published more than one hundred and fifty articles, editorials, and columns about King, the MIA, federal court decisions, and related topics such as the injunction barring the NAACP from operating in Alabama. That fateful decision sparked the ACMHR, which launched the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth’s career as a bold advocate for civil rights and leader of the Birmingham movement.

Inspired by the Montgomery Bus Boycott, ACMHR formed “project transportation” in July 1956 to pressure the Birmingham Transit Company into bringing its seating practices on buses in line with federal court decisions. Jackson and the Birmingham World covered the initiative and the violent pushback from the Ku Klux Klan that included a late-night bombing. Shuttlesworth escaped major harm when sticks of dynamite exploded outside the parsonage of his church on Christmas night 1956, but two of his four children were injured. Jackson editorialized that the “hate bombing” had been a desperate effort to forestall change. However, the minister and a group of about fifty individuals fanned out on December 26 and boarded city buses, choosing seats in front of, and in some cases beside, white passengers. Jackson declared that “the deprived segment will never anymore accept bus segregation.” Still, the struggle to integrate public transportation in Birmingham lasted nearly six years, until June 28, 1962.

By 1960 race relations had further deteriorated in Birmingham, where black residents constituted 40 percent of the total population (340,887). Then, on May 14, 1961, Mother’s Day, as it happened, Freedom Riders on buses en route from Atlanta to Birmingham were savagely attacked. One group was set upon by Klansman in Anniston, about an hour east of Birmingham. The other riders were assailed by Klansmen armed with chains, iron pipes, and other weapons when their Trailways bus arrived at the station in downtown Birmingham.

“The mob has given to our city [a] bloody eye, an evil image, and a violent reputation,” wrote Jackson in a typed letter to Birmingham Mayor Jimmie W. Morgan. “Tragic and regrettable events …, placed in the historical stream of other related events, are so shocking, so contrary to the best Southern traditions and so poisonous to the deeper roots of democracy that the cry of conscience is heard around the world.”

Yet the rampage on that Mother’s Day paled in comparison to the murders of four young girls at the 16th Street Baptist Church on September 15, 1963. Never before had one of Emory Jackson’s editorials appeared on the front page of the Birmingham World. But the deaths of the girls who ranged in age from ten to fourteen warranted, in Jackson’s view, the page-one placement. “They were children,” he wrote in his editorial. “They were victims of cruel madness, the vile bigotry and the deadly hate of unknown persons.” He could not bear the thought that they might have died in vain. So he challenged people to “pour into the churches on Sunday, stream to the voter-registration offices, make their dollars talk freedom, and build up a better leadership.”

All told, 1963 was an ugly year. Governor George Wallace proclaimed in his January 14 inaugural address his intention to forestall school integration. A disappointed Jackson wrote, “This newspaper still hopes that he will break company with any idea of defying federal authority, imposing emotional outbursts between the facts of freedom, and of giving the impression that Alabama can live in isolation [from] this nation.”

In April, members of the Birmingham City Council complained about the continuing civil disorders, demonstrations, and other unlawful acts in their city. For the city’s black citizens, however, April marked the beginning of increased and intensified integrationist activity. Shuttlesworth and dozens of demonstrators who knelt to pray outside city hall were arrested; King promised to continue the protests until integration demands were met.

Also in April, Jackson broke from the movement by publicly expressing qualms about King’s desire to make Birmingham a target city in the campaign against legal segregation. In an editorial published April 10, the editor called for a reappraisal of the ongoing “mass-action stunts” and argued that a healthy discussion of tactics by the “dependable hometown leadership” could yield a more cohesive plan to break down racial barriers. Jackson admired the minister, but he believed that local black figures, including Shuttlesworth, businessman Arthur Gaston, attorney Arthur D. Shores, and the Rev. J. L. Ware, better understood the city’s history, politics, and personalities, and could continue the conversations about Birmingham’s racial problems.

By mid-April, the press was describing Birmingham as a “racially-tense city,” despite peaceful protests at area churches. Against this backdrop, King wrote his now-famous “Letter from Birmingham City Jail.” But Jackson remained unsure about the use of direct-action demonstrations as a “tool of freedom” and continued to encourage black Birmingham residents to engage in critical discussions of the strategy.

On May 3, however, Police Commissioner “Bull” Connor turned German shepherds and fire hoses on marchers, many of whom were children and teenagers, dramatically escalating the law enforcement response to the protests. Jackson fielded phone calls from journalists in London, New York City, Detroit, and other cities who wanted to know about the “city in turmoil.” As he had feared, Birmingham had become the focus of national and international news. That spotlight, Jackson worried, would make it even more difficult for local black leaders to converse with recalcitrant white officials “about the removal of racial segregation and discrimination.”

Two front-page stories in the June 15, 1963, issue of the World underscored the extremes to which Southern segregationists were willing to go in their defiance of civil rights. Governor Wallace, intent on upholding school segregation, famously stood in the doorway of Foster Hall in an effort to block Vivian Malone and James Hood from registering for classes at the University of Alabama. In neighboring Mississippi, Medgar Evers, an NAACP field secretary who had been organizing voter registration efforts, was assassinated in his driveway. Jackson wrote in the World, “That he should die, through such an act of barbarity and cowardice, reflects the temper and times of Mississippi, in the face of this nation’s struggles to make democracy a reality for all.”

Week in, week out, Jackson covered the civil rights movement for nearly two decades. By 1965, though, the tired fifty-six-year-old editor wrote in a letter to his sister, “Sometimes I wonder whether the worry and wear of trying to work on a Negro newspaper is worth it.” He was fed up with typesetting errors that occurred when the World was composed in Atlanta where the Scott family operated the parent Atlanta Daily World. And Jackson never had sufficient resources to completely cover local news for the paper’s seventeen thousand subscribers. But he remained at the helm of the World for another decade. As he described his work to one reader, “We look upon our efforts as community-service and social-action journalism. … We direct our message to the conscience of the Birmingham area. … We campaign, slug, battle, and fight.”

Emory O. Jackson died of prostate cancer on September 10, 1975, at the age of sixty-seven. Tributes to the lifelong bachelor poured in from members of his fraternity, Omega Psi Phi, from editors and friends, and from Rosa Parks, who wrote in a sympathy card to Jackson’s siblings, “Much of my inspiration came from knowing and working with him … before it was popular to speak out against injustice.” More than five hundred mourners attended the funeral at 6th Avenue Baptist Church where Benjamin E. Mays, president emeritus of Morehouse College, delivered the eulogy. Atlanta Daily World publisher, C. A. Scott, described his employee as “one of the most vigorous, persistent, and courageous advocates in the South for full civil rights.” Many others, including Jet’s executive editor Robert E. Johnson, offered tributes to the man they considered a mentor and colleague.

Jackson was buried at Shadow Lawn Memorial Gardens, the largest black cemetery in Birmingham. I visited the neglected graveyard late one afternoon in 2012 with Jackson’s brother, Lovell, who was then ninety. He had sought public recognition of his sibling’s career and commitment to civil rights. A bronze plaque featuring Emory Jackson’s photo and a biography finally was affixed that October to the brick façade of the World office, now home to a small diner.

Birmingham City Councilor Steven W. Hoyt said the overdue recognition was important because Jackson helped “those who were not close to the movement” to see what was happening. A reader living in Savannah, Georgia, aptly summarized the editor’s critical role in the struggle for equality after he received his first copy of the Birmingham World in July 1950: “I salute you and your associates for the courageous fight being carried on in behalf of justice and democracy in Birmingham. Thank God, you are in the fight.”