I’d sure like to invite Emory Jackson to my next dinner party. Despite studying the longtime editor of the Birmingham (Alabama) World for a decade, and talking with people who knew the man, I still have unanswered questions about his civil-rights career that spanned nearly forty years.
Jackson was born on September 8, 1908, in Buena Vista, Georgia, a tiny town about 120 miles due south of Atlanta. His parents, four siblings, and grandmother later relocated to Birmingham’s Enon Ridge neighborhood, where two additional brothers were born. Jackson joined his family there when he was about eleven.
The fashionable area of single-family homes just northwest of downtown was perhaps the best of the districts zoned for Black residents. Elsewhere in Birmingham, people lived in substandard, overcrowded housing that lacked plumbing and was often near industrial areas or railroads. Segregation also persisted in parks, recreation, and entertainment; education; transportation, shopping, and dining. By 1924, the city claimed as many as 18,000 Klansmen who sought to enforce its rigid racial segregation laws.
Jackson attended school in classrooms that were overcrowded and unfit for use. In fact, in July 1919—just as he was entering Birmingham’s school system—the board of education recommended the demolition of nearly all buildings in use at Negro schools. But Jackson loved learning. At Industrial High School, later renamed for educator A. H. Parker, Jackson played on the baseball team and was a member of the debate club. Most importantly, he began his journalism career as a sports reporter for the school newspaper, the Record.
After graduating in 1928, Jackson left Birmingham to attend Morehouse College. He thrived at the historically Black, all-male institution in Atlanta. And though he intended to become a teacher, coursework for his bachelor of arts degree was perfect preparation for an eventual career in journalism. Jackson studied ethics, public speaking, political science, writing and rhetoric, and Black history and literature. He also wrote for the campus Maroon Tiger, whose staffers later had illustrious careers at Ebony, the Chicago Defender, the Baltimore Afro-American, and other publications.
Jackson graduated in 1932 and returned to Birmingham, where he would remain for the rest of his life. He worked at schools including Westfield High; there he taught English, coached basketball, and supervised the campus newspaper. One student-reporter, Robert E. Johnson, credited Jackson with inspiring him to pursue employment in journalism; he enjoyed a forty-year career with Jet.
Jackson said he came to his own journalistic career largely through accident.
The editor of the Birmingham World, a Morehouse College alumnus who also had worked at the Maroon Tiger, asked Jackson to do some feature and editorial writing for the semiweekly World. Eventually, Jackson gave up teaching for newspapering and the platform it gave him to champion equal rights. He led the publication from about 1940 until his death in September 1975.
Launching a Decade-Long Study
I learned some of these biographical details from reading the Pulitzer Prize-winning book, The Race Beat, by Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff. In 2009, Hank spent several days with me at my campus to participate in a seminar on civil rights and the media. We chatted about his book over dinner one night; I asked Hank if there was someone, whether reporter or civil-rights activist, whom he wished he had been able to cover more fully in The Race Beat. “Emory Overton Jackson,” he said, unequivocally.
And so that sparked what became a ten-year study of the man and his newspaper, the Birmingham World.
Soon after I hosted Hank in 2009, I attended the annual convention of the American Journalism Historians Association—fortuitously held in Birmingham that year. I arrived a day early so I could visit the Birmingham Public Library Department of Archives and Manuscripts (BPLDAM), where some of Jackson’s and the World’s records are housed. I discovered hundreds—thousands?—of letters to politicians, NAACP workers, fellow editors, and friends; drafts of speeches; advertising solicitations; correspondence to and from the World’s owner in Atlanta, C. A. Scott; records of his involvement with the Negro/National Newspaper Publishers Association; and letters between Jackson (a lifelong bachelor) and the woman I believe he loved for decades.
In addition to the records at BPLDAM, I found collections related to Jackson or the newspaper at locations including the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute; Morehouse College; Emory University; Howard University; and the University of Alabama.
For a historian, the abundance of documents was a blessing—and a curse: so much to review, read, decipher, understand, contextualize, verify. Also difficult was cobbling together grants for multiple lengthy research trips and for a stay in Detroit to interview Jackson’s last surviving brother and a nephew. And the fact that I could only conduct research over the summer and academic breaks meant continually refreshing my memory and trying to stay motivated to finish the project, especially as the years passed.
The Enigmatic Jackson
The research was nevertheless fascinating, particularly so when I began exploring Jackson’s coverage of the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott. He sat at the designated press table with a few other reporters on December 5, 1955, and scribbled notes for his story about the first mass meeting of the Montgomery Improvement Association at Holt Street Baptist Church. Jackson described the “ringing oratory” of a youthful Martin Luther King Jr., and he reported the minister’s exhortation to the thousands in attendance that night to engage in a peaceful, orderly protest of the local bus company for its ongoing humiliation of Black passengers. If Jackson were seated at my dinner table, I would ask him more about that night and subsequent interactions with King during the 13-month boycott.
I also would press Jackson to explain why he largely failed to cover the direct-action protests waged by King and others in Birmingham in 1963. Much of that action occurred within blocks of the Birmingham World office: at Kelly Ingram Park, 16th Street Baptist Church, and the A. G. Gaston Motel, where King and Rev. Ralph Abernathy had stayed and held strategy sessions and press conferences. Jackson was an eyewitness to history, but he was scooped by outside reporters. Yet he did editorialize throughout his career about the “hate bombings”—particularly after the September 1963 murders at the church—and countless shootings of Black men by White police.
So, why didn’t he write about the children’s marches or King’s famous “Letter from Birmingham City Jail”? Did his conservative boss, C. A. Scott, tell him not to cover local events? Was Jackson afraid? Did he disapprove of King’s methods? In my book about Jackson, I offer some educated guesses. Still, I long for a conversation with Jackson about his impressions of the Birmingham Campaign.
Past, and Present
I became interested in the Black Press some twenty years ago, when I was a doctoral student at the University of Oregon. My dissertation focused on editor-activist Beatrice Morrow Cannady, who used her weekly newspaper, interracial teas, talks to students and civic and religious groups, and radio broadcasts to advocate for Black Oregonians in the first decades of the 1900s.
Subsequent studies considered other Black newspapers and editors in California and Washington. While my latest project entailed a “geographical jump” to a southern state, themes are persistent in my research: (dis)enfranchisement, discrimination, officer-involved shootings, (in)justice, violence, and history. Jackson, for example, told a group in 1972, “The devaluation of a group often begins with the denial of their history.” He called then on scholars, historians, and organizations to gather information and “rebuild and reassess the history of Birmingham” so that it more fairly and accurately reflected “the deeds, accomplishments, and achievements” of its Black residents. Jackson’s dream of an inclusive historical narrative began taking shape in January 2017, when President Barack Obama issued a proclamation creating the Birmingham Civil Rights National Monument to memorialize the people who worked for equal rights and the places that were integral to the movement.
Jackson’s talk is included in one of the postscripts that accompany five chapters in my cultural biography. The goal of those additional narratives was to connect his advocacy or experiences to the present and highlight the relevance of his civil-rights work to readers. Jackson’s editorials about unchecked police violence in Birmingham, and “blistering address[es]” about racial discrimination to groups, repeatedly underscored his belief that Black lives mattered. His work serves as context for the current movement formed in 2013.
The past is the present; the present becomes the past. As historians, we have an obligation to spotlight how the long political and social struggle for civil rights was waged by editors and activists—and continues to be fought by new generations of foot soldiers who demand justice and equality.