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Mangun, Kimberley. Editor Emory O. Jackson, the Birmingham World, and the Fight for Civil Rights in Alabama, 1940-1975. New York: Peter Lang, 2019, 268 pp., $47.95 (paperback). Reviewed by Vanessa Murphree, University of Southern Mississippi (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Emory O. Jackson’s journalism and activist career defined and inspired Birmingham’s civil rights history from the beginning of his editorship of the Birmingham World in 1941 until his untimely death in 1975. Known primarily as a newspaper editor, Jackson used a variety of communication strategies and platforms to advance civil rights in his beloved hometown and nationally. In this compelling narrative, Kimberley Mangun tells the story of Jackson’s work to achieve civil rights and his consistent refusal to back down to racist forces.
Born in Buena Vista, Georgia, in 1908, Jackson moved with his family to a middle-class Black Birmingham neighborhood as a young child. After high school, he enrolled in Morehouse College in Atlanta. His impressive college accomplishments included serving both as student government president and as editor of the college newspaper. After his 1932 graduation, he worked for two years as a high school teacher and basketball coach before he joined the Birmingham World in 1934. Founded just three years earlier, the World was the most-read Black paper in the state as well as an important voice in the Birmingham civil rights movement. Seven years later, Jackson became editor and began his widely read syndicated column, “The Tip Off.” For almost thirty years, he used this popular platform to advocate for civil rights, all the while bravely criticizing local, state, and federal officials.
Jackson naturally synchronized his dedication to social advancement with his writing career. Mangun notes that Jackson believed journalists “had a duty to promote democracy.” (80) As part of this mission, Jackson traveled extensively and spoke frequently to civic, religious, professional, and educational audiences. While traveling for these events, he conducted extensive research about living conditions and tracked reports of violence. Jackson used his research to inform his news articles and to provide information to the NAACP to help build legal cases.
During his editorship, the Ku Klux Klan as well as the White Citizens Council (a group of White esteemed business leaders who worked to keep Jim Crow laws in full force) made voter registration difficult and dangerous.
Despite the violence, Jackson held his city near to his heart. After the seventh bombing between 1947 and 1950, Jackson remained optimistic, saying: “Let us solve these bombings and win back the city’s decent, magic, glowing name.” (1) Jackson would lead many fights that would eventually help his city regain some of this lost decency. Mangun provides detailed accounts of his many challenges to unfair treatment of Blacks, including zoning and housing issues; Black veterans’ rights; promotion of improved sanitation and medical care; the fight to eliminate unfair literacy tests; and a personal almost twenty-year crusade to successfully integrate the University of Alabama and other state-supported universities.
Throughout all his efforts, Jackson made it clear that he believed that legal challenges to disenfranchisement, segregation, and other unfair policies were the most effective mechanism for achieving civil rights for all. Though he initially supported the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Alabama Movement for Human Rights, he detached himself from these groups as they began to focus more on protests and demonstrations. Mangun points out that the benefit of hindsight shows that almost every Alabama civil rights victory is directly connected to an NAACP lawsuit. With that in mind, Jackson’s focus almost certainly contributed significantly to many of these successes.
Though Jackson did not participate in public protest, Mangun explains that he used his typewriter as a form of direct action and that in addition to his newswriting, he continuously crafted letters addressed to elected officials. Instead of marches and demonstrations, Jackson asked leaders to exhibit “the strength of spirit, the character of purpose, and the courage of thought” to discover solutions to the city’s “grievous, festering, stagnating problems.” (146)
Despite his work as consistent activist and long-term, highly successful editor, Jackson’s career has been largely ignored in academic literature. Mangun’s book corrects this historical oversight while providing insight into his life and explanation about how he used the newspaper to advance civil rights. The scope of this book is broad. By telling Jackson’s story, Mangun offers an extensive history of bombings, racist legislation, and voter suppression. Mangun’s use of primary sources is impressive. She provides detailed notes from Jackson’s papers as well as 30 years of archival issues of the Birmingham World. The book is filled with excerpts from newspaper columns and private correspondence. The sources provide both a personal portrait and a public profile of a tireless activist. Mangun’s biography is a worthwhile project from the perspective of civil rights and journalism, particularly concerning newspaper activism. The book provides a well-informed narrative about Jackson’s life and summarizes his ongoing legacy. Mangun makes it clear that Jackson was more than a newspaper editor. He was also a central figure in the civil rights movement.