EXCERPT of Chapter 1, “Magic City, Tragic City,” from the book Editor Emory O. Jackson, the Birmingham World, and the Fight for Civil Rights in Alabama, 1940-1975, by Kimberley Mangun (New York: Peter Lang, 2019).
MAGIC CITY, TRAGIC CITY
Between 1926 and 1952, thousands of railroad travelers at Terminal Station were greeted by the slogan Birmingham: the magic city in illuminated letters spanning a metal structure. It became “a sort of suspended ‘welcome’ mat” for visitors, noted one reporter, and “a cherished landmark” for residents. But by 1952, it was little more than a dilapidated eyesore with rotten framework and faulty wiring.
Commissioner Jimmie Morgan felt the money needed for repairs would be better spent on signage at Birmingham Municipal Airport and along arterial roads leading into the city. After all, he reasoned, more folks were traveling by plane and car. The magic city sign was torn down in June 1952. In 1969, wrecking balls destroyed Terminal Station.
If Emory Overton Jackson lamented the loss of the landmark sign, he didn’t comment publicly in the Birmingham World. Regular readers of the black newspaper knew that its editor always thought of Birmingham as a magic city, even when atrocities there broke his heart. After writing an editorial about the seventh bombing to occur in Birmingham between 1947 and 1950, Jackson said, “Let us solve these bombings and win back the city’s decent, magic, glowing name.”
The moniker had been associated with the town in north-central Alabama almost since its establishment on December 19, 1871. A group of speculators had earlier formed a land company and elected James R. Powell as its president. He had just returned from a business trip to Birmingham, England, where he had observed similarities between that industrial metropolis and the mountainous area of Jefferson County with its unique and abundant combination of natural resources: coal, iron ore, and limestone—the building blocks of steel. Powell suggested naming the projected town Birmingham; the group agreed and he began mapping lots and promoting the burg.
By 1873, when Powell was elected the town’s second mayor, Birmingham had 4,000 residents, 500 homes, and stores, churches, hotels, restaurants, a national bank, and a street system. Powell delighted in reporting to fellow stockholders that “this magic little city of ours has no peer in the rapidity of its growth.”
In 1912, Birmingham boasted that it was the “Pittsburgh of the South” owing to the many steel and iron plants that spewed soot and smoke. By 1950, when Jackson wrote his editorial in the Birmingham World, the city was becoming known by the epithets “Bombingham” and the “Tragic City” owing to the spate of racially-motivated residential, church, and business bombings by white supremacists. After national media coverage of the brutality against young people at Kelly Ingram Park on May 3, 1963, the mayor of Pittsburgh wrote a letter to his counterpart in Birmingham severing their symbolic tie.
Jackson did not write in the World about the destruction of Terminal Station, either. The demolition of the massive 60-year-old building—with walls of Tennessee marble, barrel vaults, and a central skylight featuring ornamental glass—may have been an architectural loss. But it also was an imposing reminder of racial segregation. Distinct facilities for white and black travelers had been incorporated into the original 1909 building design due to Southern statutes that required separate but equal areas such as restrooms and lunch counters. Jackson covered three high-profile incidents at the station. The first occurred in December 1956.
Local businessman Carl Baldwin and his wife Alexinia, a teacher, were arrested for disorderly conduct by five policemen after the ticketed couple refused to move to the colored waiting room. Jackson was incensed. The arrests, he wrote in the Birmingham World, were “obviously” motivated by Birmingham’s “deter- mination to enforce local … segregation laws” and ignore the 1955 ruling by the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) banning segregation in interstate travel. The Baldwins sued in federal district court to obtain enforcement of the ICC’s decision, which stipulated that all passengers were entitled to share waiting rooms and other spaces. Jackson covered the case until 1961, when the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals finally ended segregation at Birmingham Terminal.
Jackson, editor of the Birmingham World from about 1940 until his death in 1975, wrote articles, editorials, and lengthy columns about Jim Crow in all of its insidious forms. His work was informed by prodigious amounts of research that included on-scene investigations and voracious reading of the media and reports issued by contemporaneous organizations like the NAACP and Southern Conference Educational Fund. He also was a forceful speaker who extemporaneously discussed topical issues with a wide range of groups in Alabama and elsewhere. He campaigned for voting rights and equal educational opportunities, called for investigations into the bombings, and documented the shooting deaths of unarmed black men. At times, Jackson was at the forefront of the Civil Rights Movement, such as when he covered the Montgomery Improvement Association and its 381-day bus boycott. He also reported the formation of the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights (ACMHR) and wrote about the group’s activism in Birmingham.
Drive And Determination
But Jackson’s drive and determination to achieve equal rights for black Alabamians frequently sparked his impatience with others inside and outside the burgeoning Civil Rights Movement. In June 1948, for example, he wrote, “The failure of the Birmingham Branch of the NAACP to achieve its membership goal of 12,000 [for the year] is a shame on us all.” The civil rights work of the New York-based organization was sustained in part by annual fees its members paid; local units were expected to meet quotas set by the national director of branches. Jackson called Birmingham Branch leaders “ineffective” and said people who didn’t financially support the NAACP had no right to “complain about unequal educational opportunities, police brutality, denial of voting, [or] second-class citizenship.”
Jackson’s longtime support of the NAACP and its legal campaign to win civil rights for black Americans affected how he perceived the movement, particularly when it shifted to direct-action protest. He criticized Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and ACMHR founder Fred Shuttlesworth for leading marches in Birmingham in 1963, and Jackson’s coverage of some major civil-rights events in the city was meager—even when they occurred on the World’s doorstep. The editor’s complexity makes him an interesting man to study.
Jackson’s work also illustrates the personal nature of the Civil Rights Movement. He was perhaps more committed to the fight for equal rights than many people of his generation, and for 35 years he was the driving force behind the World’s civil-rights agenda. But Jackson’s advocacy doesn’t always square with collective memory of the movement or fit into the dominant narrative of the struggle for civil rights in Alabama. These contradictions, expressed publicly and privately, may have contributed to the historical erasure of the editor that began soon after his death in 1975. Such erasure of a caring, charismatic, idiosyncratic man is not just sad; it is wrong.
Born In Georgia
Emory Overton Jackson was born on September 8, 1908, in the small Georgia town of Buena Vista—pronounced Bū’na Vissta—about 120 miles south of Atlanta. He was named after William Overton Emory, whom his parents had heard deliver an impressive address at an Emancipation Day program. They may also have read about Emory in an Atlanta Constitution story about Georgia’s delegates to the 1908 Republican National Convention. Three months before Jackson was born, the paper reported that Emory had nominated one of the candidates for president and in so doing won “a true ovation as he closed the splendid tribute … in the name of two million black voters.”
Jackson never met his namesake but he corresponded occasionally with the family. In February 1948, Mrs. Emory was inspired to write after reading a story in the Pittsburgh Courier about Jackson’s successful protest of the Freedom Train. The cross-country journey of the train with its cargo of dozens of documents from the National Archives had been conceived as a way to help Americans reflect on the meaning of citizenship in postwar America.
The goals were to pro- mote civic engagement and foster greater understanding of, and appreciation for, the liberties that citizenship affords. But black residents had little freedom in Birmingham. Jim Crow segregation dictated separate lines for whites and Negroes awaiting admittance to the train. Jackson considered such an arrangement contrary to the ideals represented by the traveling exhibit and the recent recommendations of President Harry Truman’s Committee on Civil Rights, which urged elimination of racial segregation from American life.
Jackson covered the controversy in the Birmingham World and denounced the hypocrisy in editorials and his regular column, The Tip-Off. As secretary of the Birmingham Branch of the NAACP, Jackson wrote and called local politicians, NAACP officials, and the train’s administrative organization in New York City to protest the “jim crow scheme.”
Organizers ultimately decided to forgo the scheduled stop in Birmingham at the end of December 1947 rather than deal with local coordinators who obstinately refused to integrate the Freedom Train. The Pittsburgh Courier, a black paper that had a circulation of about 350,000 then, saluted Jackson for openly fighting prejudice and segregation in Birmingham, even after a caller threatened his life. Mrs. Emory saw the story in the leading weekly and wrote, “You are everything your Mother wanted you to be when she decided to name you Emory. I know my husband would [have been] very proud of you.”
But the all-white Birmingham City Commission branded Jackson a communist—a common identification during the perennial Red Scare—for opposing the Freedom Train. The Alabama Citizen, a black newspaper in Tuscaloosa, was disgusted by commissioners’ treatment of “the hard hitting and militant editor” and stated, “This rotten game of labeling everybody Communist who doesn’t agree to second class citizenship must be stopped.” Jackson had come to the FBI’s attention in August 1941, when an informant claimed the editor was a party member.
In 1946, the bureau’s special agent in charge reviewed Jackson’s file and prepared a memo for Director J. Edgar Hoover. The document detailed Jackson’s work with the Birmingham Branch NAACP, the allegations of voter discrimination he had made to the Birmingham FBI office, his subscriptions to communist publications, and collaborative efforts with known or alleged communists to investigate the brutal rape of Recy Taylor in Abbeville, Alabama, in 1944. Although Jackson was never the subject of a formal FBI investigation, correspondence about him continued until at least October 1972.
Move To Birmingham
Jackson’s father, William, worked as a carpenter and bricklayer. His mother, Lovie, tended the house the couple owned in Buena Vista and cared for a growing family that included sisters Katherine and Ruby, sons William and Marion, and grandmother Vinia Terry Jones.
The family moved to Birmingham in stages beginning in 1916; by August 1919, when Jackson was nearly 11, the members were settled into their home in the hilly Enon Ridge neighborhood and two additional sons, Bernard and Lovell, were born. At least some mealtime conversations likely focused on the post-World War I “spirit of determination … that surged throughout black America.” People were hopeful that soldiers’ sacrifices abroad would impact civil rights at home and “the social, economic, and political future of black people.” But deadly race riots in multiple US cities in 1919 prompted sociologist W. E. B. Du Bois to write in the NAACP’s Crisis that “outbreaks” in the North were fierce but quickly curtailed, while those in the South revealed “the unbending determination of the whites to subject and rule the blacks.”
White editors in the Alabama cities of Tuscaloosa and Montgomery derided that journal and the Chicago Defender, known for its promotion of the Great Migration, for “magnifying the difficulties of the negro [sic] in the South.”
Black Alabamians were disheartened to discover that participation in the war, whether abroad or at home, had not erased any Jim Crow restrictions. Segregation persisted in parks, recreation, and entertainment; education and housing; transportation, shopping, and dining. As one writer has noted, ordinances passed during the first half of the 20th century “left no doubt” about Birmingham’s “total commitment to racial segregation.” Moreover, the strong presence of the Ku Klux Klan in Alabama cities was intimidating at best and terrifying at worst. By 1924, Birmingham boasted as many as 18,000 Klansmen who helped ensure that rigid racial segregation laws were enforced. But the New York-based NAACP also was expanding, thanks to the organization’s “fervent era” of chapter formation inspired by the post-World War I rise of racial consciousness and the hard work of Field Director James Weldon Johnson. Membership increased tenfold between 1918 and 1919, when the Birmingham Branch was established, and the NAACP rightly began describing itself as a national organization.
Birmingham’s Negro population was growing quickly, from 11,254 in 1890 to 70,230 in 1920. black residents constituted about 39 percent of the city’s total population during most of Jackson’s lifetime. The family’s arrival in 1919 also coincided with Birmingham’s burgeoning interest in city planning. City officials hired Warren Henry Manning, a Boston-based landscape architect and planner who had worked with Frederick Law Olmsted Jr., the famous designer of Central Park in New York City.
Manning was nationally known for his public and private projects involving college campuses, subdivisions, and town and city plans. He recommended setting aside more area for parks in Birmingham, creating zoning districts, building numerous civic centers, and creating school sites with large playgrounds that could also serve as places for local, civic, and social activities. Manning’s 1919 City Plan of Birmingham was later described by a landscape historian as “unusually forward-looking.” But only two ideas were adopted: construction of a downtown municipal auditorium and residential zoning.
Businessmen and realtors favored zoning as a way to protect property values and demarcate commercial and residential areas. City officials envisioned zoning as a way to regulate neighborhoods, and in 1926 approved an ordinance that designated specific areas for whites and blacks.
The fashionable Enon Ridge neighborhood of single-family homes was perhaps the best of the districts zoned for black residents. Most other sections consisted of substandard, overcrowded housing that lacked plumbing and was often located in a floodplain or near industrial areas or railroads. Jackson was fiercely proud of the two-square-mile slice of land just northwest of downtown. He later lamented the loss of its history as books went out of print and Enon Ridge residents died. black laborers were the initial inhabitants; Jackson wrote that almost every man who lived there, like his own father, could earn a living based on his mastery of some skill or trade.
By the early 1900s, the area was considered desirable by many of Birmingham’s black professionals. Among them was Charles Harris, cofounder of Davenport and Harris Funeral Home, which handled arrangements for families including Jackson’s. Contemporaries who attended school or grew up in Enon Ridge included businessman Arthur G. Gaston; Erskine Hawkins, the famous trumpeter whose first hit was about the city’s black social and entertainment hub called Tuxedo Junction; and John T. “Fess” Whatley, an accomplished music educator who also taught typesetting and printing at Industrial High School.
Another anchor in the community was Sardis Baptist Church. Jackson “worked devotedly” for the church and served it in many ways during his life, including as a deacon and trustee, and chairman of the education and publicity committees.
In July 1919, about the time Jackson would have entered Slater Elementary School, the board of education declared nearly all buildings in current use at Negro schools “unfit and unsanitary” and recommended that they be abandoned. Slater, the most crowded of the 20 primary schools for blacks with an enrollment of 1,858 students, was one of the institutions listed in the board’s report.
Industrial High School was similarly overcrowded, with a capacity enrollment of 1,302 in the 1923–24 academic year. Jackson attended ninth grade at Lincoln, a middle school that had just been created to help alleviate bulging classrooms at IHS, and then entered 10th grade at Industrial in September 1925.
The 17-year-old played first base on the school’s baseball team and was a member of the debate club. He also was a fan of Alabama football, basketball, and the Birmingham black Barons, one of the most successful Negro League baseball teams whose players included Hall of Famers Willie Mays and Leroy “Satchel” Paige. Jackson began his journalism career as a sports reporter for the school news- paper, the Record, and may have helped typeset it in the printing department that Whatley established soon after joining the faculty in 1917.
Disfigured Right Hand
As a teenager, Jackson worked at foundries in Chicago and in the suburb of Cicero. The experience inspired a lifelong interest in working conditions. He considered getting training in labor relations to assist black union members such as those employed in Birmingham’s iron, steel, and mining industries. Jackson’s job in the foundries also left him with a disfigured right hand due to a bad burn, perhaps a result of scalding steam or a splash of molten metal. He was self-conscious about the injury and typically hid his right hand when he was photographed. The scarring may have affected his handwriting, which was nearly indecipherable, and prompted a unique style of typing that looked as if he was typing with his knuckles.
After graduating from Industrial in 1928, Jackson left Birmingham to attend Morehouse College, the historically black, all-male institution in Atlanta with a reputation for excellence in scholarship, leadership, and service.
Jackson thrived there, though it wasn’t easy. “For one of humble means and discouraging circumstances to make it through college during depression days is somewhat of an achievement,” he wrote years later in a Tip-Off. Jackson recalled his “sacrifice [and] scuffle” to “pull [himself] through college,” and credited help from his family, Sardis members, and people in his Enon Ridge neighborhood.
He studied ethics and their relation to everyday life and problems, public speaking, and writing and rhetoric, coursework that was sound preparation for an eventual career in journalism. His program of study for a bachelor of arts degree with a major and two minors also entailed courses in history, mathematics (he considered becoming a mathematician at one point), sciences, a foreign language, and other subjects.
Four Books A Day
A class with J. Saunders Redding, a demanding but engaging literary critic and historian, awakened an interest in great Negro editors like Frederick Douglass. Jackson recalled perusing as many as four books a day about black history and developing an enduring desire to read about politics, philosophy, and history. He also became a subscriber to The Crisis, the NAACP’s journal, and Opportunity, published then by the National Urban League.
Jackson developed a particularly close relationship with Professor Gladstone Lewis Chandler, who taught English and advised the campus paper, Maroon Tiger. Jackson wrote for the Tiger and in 1932 served as associate editor. An editorial in January hinted at his career with the Birmingham World. He informed his peers that “any group can better its condition when challenges are bravely and intelligently accepted.”
Jackson was among the many Tiger staffers who later had illustrious careers in journalism at Ebony and other black periodicals including the Baltimore Afro-American, New York Amsterdam News, and Chicago Defender. Jet’s Robert Johnson, an alumnus of Morehouse and the campus newspaper, said Chandler “mold[ed] men of public affairs” and “prodded” former students—including himself, Jackson, and Martin Luther King Jr.—to achieve greatness by entering “the mainstream of thought and action in their chosen communities.”
Jackson called Chandler particularly inspiring and years later still appreciated the fact that his professor had sparked enjoyment of American literature. Jackson remembered plowing through works by Ralph Waldo Emerson. The 19th-century writer, known for his essays on transcendentalism, moderation, and self-improvement, as well as his sayings and difficulty organizing large amounts of material, influenced Jackson’s own work. His editorials and columns—punctuated frequently with his observation, “It seems to me”—often consisted of jumbled thoughts, made-up words, and metaphors. For example, after officials in Montgomery were served copies of the Supreme Court’s order ending the bus boycott, Jackson said the decree definitively told individuals who were still “clinging on to the buggy-shafting of ‘separate but equal’ philosophy” that bus segregation was unconstitutional.
Other experiences at Morehouse began to rouse his race consciousness, an awareness of a rich cultural past and a present demarcated by racial stratification. During his freshman year he worked at an on-campus theater as an usher. When whites arrived for the play, Jackson—so used to Birmingham’s rigid Jim Crow laws—wasn’t sure where to seat them. He consulted the head usher, who said, “This is Morehouse College; seat them wherever there are open chairs.” A similar incident happened when he was working at a football game and a white fan asked about seating. Jackson heard someone say, “Just any of them over there. There’s a seat!” Four decades later, he vividly recalled how these occurrences broadened his worldview.
He joined the college’s political science club and served as the first president of the Morehouse Student Body, the college’s student government. That involvement almost certainly contributed to his lasting interest in politics and civics. In Birmingham Jackson was active in black organizations including the Alabama State Coordinating Association for Registration and Voting and the Jefferson County Progressive Democratic Council, and he frequently conducted research and reported on candidates and voter registration in Alabama’s 67 counties.
He kept up with hometown news while at Morehouse by reading the Birmingham Reporter. Jackson said he rushed to the library each Monday morning to review the paper founded in 1906 by Oscar Adams and known equally for its fine appearance and coverage of segregation, disenfranchisement, and violence committed by the Klan. Throughout the 1920s and early 1930s, the Reporter focused on “the mistreatment and injustice suffered by” black Alabamians. That included the trial in Scottsboro, Alabama, of the nine young men who were falsely accused of raping two white women. Their conviction by an all-white jury was widely seen as a “tragic miscarriage of justice.”
Omega Psi Phi
Jackson was proud of his affiliation with Omega Psi Phi Fraternity. Founded at Howard University in Washington, D.C., in 1911, its members are known for moral excellence, humility, leadership, courage, first-class citizenship, and a commitment to education. He joined the fraternity while at Morehouse and for the rest of his life was an active member of the Alpha Phi Chapter in Birmingham as well as the Seventh District, which encompassed Alabama, Florida, Georgia, and Mississippi.
For many years Jackson chaired the chapter’s scholarship committee and the local and regional social-action committees that were charged with community improvement. He sought to mobilize his fraternity brothers to eliminate racial barriers in education and organize “the Negro vote into an effective instrument for first-class citizenship.” Jackson himself became a registered voter in 1934, after he had saved $4.50 to pay the required poll tax.
In addition, he was a frequent guest speaker at events hosted by fraternity chapters in Alabama and other states during the annual fall Achievement Week celebration of individuals who had contributed to racial uplift. In November 1950, for example, he delivered a “message of timely and significant import” about the fight for civil rights at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery. Jackson was lauded as “a champion of human rights for all Americans” and presented an honorarium equivalent to $250.37.
He spent college summers in Birmingham working for Protective Industrial Insurance Company, a subsidiary of Davenport and Harris Funeral Home. Jackson also began attending meetings of the moribund Birmingham Branch of the NAACP. Its activity had virtually ceased in the 1920s when the Ku Klux Klan enrolled thousands of members in the Birmingham area.
Jackson recalled seeing only a few people at the NAACP meetings but he participated each summer thereafter until graduation, when he “became an ardent worker” in the re-formed branch.
Love Of Literature
Jackson resumed his job with the insurance company in 1932, after earning a degree in English with minors in economics and education. But soon he began working as a teacher at locations including Westfield High School, then on the Miles College campus. Jackson drew on his love of literature and brought Shakespeare’s plays to life for students in his English classes. He stressed the importance of keeping abreast of current events by reading black newspapers, and he coached basketball and supervised the school publication, the Trail Blazer. One student-reporter was Robert Johnson, who credited Jack- son with inspiring him to pursue a career in journalism that eventually led him to Jet magazine in Chicago. Another student was Anne Rutledge, who became a professor and poet. She and Jackson developed an especially close friendship that lasted until his death in 1975.
Saved correspondence between the two, in his hasty style of error-filled typing and her beautiful penmanship, suggests that Jackson loved her deeply but never found the time, courage, or right circumstances to ask her to marry him. He remained a lifelong, if regretful, bachelor.
Birmingham World Beginnings
Jackson said he came to his journalism career largely through accident. He reflected on this in a June 1956 column about a recent trip to Pittsburgh to attend the annual convention of the National Newspaper Publishers Association (NNPA). During his stay he bumped into Gaines Bradford, director of health and welfare for the Urban League there, who had worked for a few years as editor of the semiweekly Birmingham World after its founding in 1931. The Morehouse alumnus was familiar with Jackson’s work at the Maroon Tiger and thought he might be able to help “the young Birmingham sheet.”
Jackson accepted his invitation to join the small staff and did some feature and editorial writing while still teaching. Eventually he decided that “the classroom was too narrow for [him] to function in.” The newspaper offered Jackson a platform for documenting terrorism such as the bombings and police brutality and advocating civil rights and liberties, the guarantees of citizenship and equal treatment in settings including education, employment, and public accommodations.
Jackson’s meager monthly salary of $32 was one-third less than he was earning as a teacher. But in those days, he said, the paycheck wasn’t as important “as trying to keep a newspaper like the Birmingham World alive and committed.” While Jackson may have quit the classroom, he never stopped teaching. “He taught in his office, the Birmingham World, his home, your home, the street corners, bus stops, barbershops, neighborhood meetings, churches, schools, and every place he had the opportunity,” said a man who knew the editor for 25 years. Jackson “dedicated his life to teaching all of us the serious business of being free.”
Atlanta Daily World
The Birmingham World was part of the Atlanta Daily World chain of newspapers owned by the Scott brothers. William Scott II, just 26 years old, launched the Georgia paper in 1928 with the help of his younger brother, Cornelius Scott. The newspaper caught on quickly with readers and by 1930, the Atlanta World was available twice a week. William then formed the Southern News Syndicate, soon renamed the Scott News Syndicate or SNS, with 50 black newspapers in 19 states. Advertisers could choose to purchase ads in a single paper, such as the Atlanta or Birmingham World, or a group of publications. The shrewd plan allowed the Scott brothers to focus on advertising, which was more lucrative than circulation, and the revenue enabled them to expand their paper to a daily by 1932. News content also was shared among the SNS newspapers and Jackson frequently contributed stories from Alabama and other locales.
The brothers’ cooperative venture entailed printing the SNS member newspapers, too. The so-called Scott system enabled journalists such as Jackson to gather local news and ads and send the content to Atlanta for production and printing. National advertising and articles from news services such as the Associated Negro Press and NNPA were inserted in the various black papers at that time.
Completed bundles of newspapers were then returned by train or Greyhound bus to the local group for distribution.42 Public-relations practitioner Moss Kendrix called William Scott the most important Negro journalist of the first half of the 20th century for innovating this system of hub printing.
While this model cut production costs for the individual newspapers, it was a source of constant aggravation for Jackson. During his tenure at the Birmingham World he sent scores of critical letters and memos to Cornelius (C. A.) Scott, a Morehouse man like Jackson who became general manager after the murder of brother William in 1934.
Jackson also returned issues of the newspaper to the central office with markings to indicate where type had been garbled, captions misplaced, stories duplicated, ads omitted, and photos misidentified. An employee in Atlanta responded to one of Jackson’s many letters in 1946. “It seems that your paper has a hard way to go,” she wrote. “I know that it is not intentional, nevertheless it seems that something is always wrong with it. I hope that it will improve as time goes by.”
But the quality of the Birmingham World ebbed and flowed over the years, perhaps due to inferior vocational training for would-be employees, lack of in-house supervision, employee turnover, quality of the linotype machines and other equipment, and the pace of an around-the-clock press cycle.
Working with a distant owner posed additional challenges for Jackson that frequently affected his ability to manage the Birmingham World and adequately cover the news for the twice-weekly paper. He grew exasperated early on with Scott’s hands-off leadership style and lack of attention to the newspaper. Staffing was always a problem; he repeatedly told his boss that he needed help building circulation, supervising distribution, and selling ads and servicing accounts.
Longtime employee Marcel Hopson reported sports and crime news and periodically sold advertising for the broadsheet newspaper that generally ranged between six and eight pages and cost about a nickel. Additional community content was provided by the occasional guest columnist and college student under Jackson’s supervision.
In May 1954, when the fight for equal educational opportunities gained momentum with the Supreme Court’s opinion in Brown v. Board of Education, Jackson wrote, “One cannot plan news coverage, provide the research necessary to give authority and dignity to the story and then be burdened with numerous other conflicting and mind-killing tasks.”
Even so, he continued to write local stories, his Tip-Off column, and most of the editorials, conduct advertising appeals, and maintain an ambitious speaking schedule that enabled him to advocate civil rights and also report on regional conditions.
Jackson did not drive a car, so he relied on the bus, train, and family and friends with automobiles to get to destinations, always toting his Royal typewriter with him. He asked groups to pay for his travel expenses, if they could afford it. If not, Jackson told people, “I will come at my own expense. The important thing is trying to be of service to you.”
He was widely known as a forceful, even fiery, speaker who commanded people’s attention. Lovell Jackson recalled taking his older brother to an engagement at a black church in a small mining town. Emory focused on fairness and told the mixed-race group, “If you believe in brotherly love you should give brotherly love.”
He pointed out the disparities between the local white and black schools and criticized white townsfolk for boasting about interracial relations but failing to “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Lovell said the tension was palpable. White attendees looked at one another. Some walked out. He was afraid. A sheriff escorted the car to the highway and Lovell said he “stepped on it.”
The next morning at breakfast he asked Emory, “Did you see how the people were looking at you and each other?” Yes, Emory replied. “The only way to get anything done is to shake people up.”
The Bottom Line
Jackson was always mindful of the newspaper’s bottom line. He reused paper long before it was customary to recycle; he typed story drafts on the backs of press releases and wrote notes on used envelopes. Jackson did much of his reporting via letters, which cost a few cents to mail, instead of phoning sources and incurring long-distance charges at a time when a 10-minute call from Birmingham to Montgomery cost $1.60, and a similar call to Washington, D.C., or New York City cost about $5 (roughly $47 today). Yet when he asked Scott about the possibility of purchasing the latest model Smith Corona electric typewriter, a tool that would have made typing with his injured hand easier, he was informed it was an unnecessary expense. However, Scott purchased a new Plymouth in 1950 for the newspaper’s Atlanta-based “roving reporters.”
Keeping up with the demanding job and his civil-rights work with the NAACP and other organizations typically meant 16-hour days and little time off. He was known as a workaholic who never went anywhere without a bundle of newspapers to sell and a notepad clenched in his left hand. But the pace impacted Jackson’s mood and well-being.
“My health seems to be giving away,” he wrote Anne Rutledge in 1950. However, said the 41-year-old, “I intend to battle on as long as I can, preferring to fall in the fight.” He wrote again a month later. He had returned to the office after a meeting and though it was nearing midnight, he told her he was trying to do a little work before trudging home. His health had worsened. “Today the doctor put me on liquids and pills and begged me to take it easy but the issues of the times challenge me.”
Spats with his boss were trying, too, and Jackson often threatened to quit the Birmingham World. In 1947 he corresponded with the Detroit Tribune about job prospects. He was undecided about leaving the South, but later he said he would accept any good offer the paper cared to make. In 1965 he told his sister Ruby Jackson Gainer, “Sometimes I wonder whether the worry and wear of trying to work on a Negro newspaper is worth it. I could have made more money with less of the heart-breaking problems. If anything shows up, I am letting this job go.” But Jackson continued to produce the paper until days before his death at the age of 67 of prostate cancer.
The Birmingham World had roots in the advocacy tradition of the Black Press. The nation’s first Negro newspaper, Freedom’s Journal, was founded in New York City in March 1827 to claim a means of communication between half a million free people of color and the public. Samuel Cornish and John Russwurm pledged to use the new weekly to dispel stereotypes that filled the white press. They also proclaimed that Civil Rights were of paramount importance and urged men who were qualified voters “to use their right to the elective franchise as free citizens.”
Freedom’s Journal ceased publication two years later with an issue filled with articles, notices, letters, and advertisements. Russwurm, who had conducted the newspaper solo for some time, was ready to launch a new career in Liberia, where freed American slaves had settled. In his farewell column he tried to assess the paper’s impact in the light of the objectives outlined in the first issue. Better indicators of the significance of Freedom’s Journal were the front- page announcement of a new semimonthly paper in Virginia and the notice that Cornish was about to debut his own newspaper, Rights of All. From that point on, editors built their papers around the ideas that “the press was fundamental to the struggle against oppression, [and] … African Americans had the right and the duty to speak for themselves.”
Estimates of the number of publications vary. Some were proposed but never published, others lasted only a few issues. However, at least 1,730 newspapers were launched between 1829 and 1905. Important publications founded around the turn of the 20th century that Jackson interacted with included the Philadelphia Tribune, Baltimore Afro-American, Journal and Guide in Norfolk, Virginia, Chicago Defender, and the Pittsburgh Courier.
The Black Press continued to document injustice and advocate equal rights throughout the interwar years. At least 473 newspapers, including the Birmingham World, were established between 1918 and 1941. However, the survival rate of black newspapers was dismal. Only about 210 still were publishing in 1940 owing to obstacles including insufficient ad revenue, distribution problems, and a lack of equipment.
Even powerful papers like the Chicago Defender faltered during the Great Depression. In 1939, founder Robert Abbott turned over control of the Defender to his nephew John Sengstacke, who focused on rebuilding the publication. He also envisioned a national press organization comprised of small and large newspapers; if the individual publications could connect to form one entity, the Black Press as a whole would be in a more powerful position to discuss the race’s grievances with officials and formulate a plan for civil rights.
The Negro Newspaper Publishers Association (NNPA) organized in February 1940 with the Atlanta Daily World as a founding member. Jackson and Cornelius Scott held leadership roles in the organization that also sought to professionalize the Black Press by holding annual regional workshops and national conferences in cities where some of the larger newspapers were located, such as Atlanta, Chicago, and Detroit.
The NNPA and its member newspapers actively promoted two events: the Russwurm Awards, created in 1948 to recognize individuals and organizations for their contributions to race relations and democracy, and Negro Newspaper Week, an annual national celebration that coincided with the anniversary of the founding of Freedom’s Journal. That observance held special meaning for Jackson because it was initiated at Morehouse College by Moss Kendrix, another alumnus of the Maroon Tiger.
Jackson was invited to the Atlanta college several times over the years to help students commemorate the beginnings of the Black Press. The chairman of the 1949 event wrote, “Since you have achieved … fame as one of the nation’s foremost Negro journalists, we would like to know if it is possible to honor the Maroon Tiger, Morehouse and Atlanta with your presence” on March 4. The NNPA, known since 1951 as the National Newspaper Publishers Association, still observes black Press Week every March.
The Birmingham World also was part of the rich history of black news- papers in Alabama dating back to 1865. Their creation and development initially were fueled by factors including a steadily growing Negro population, increasing literacy levels, and expanding opportunities for entrepreneurship, which helped publications gain some advertising.
The state’s first black paper was the Nationalist. Throughout its nearly four-year run in Mobile it focused on educating freedmen about their duties and rights and discussing topics such as education and suffrage. The earliest newspaper for black Montgomerians was the weekly Republican Sentinel, founded in April 1872 by James Thomas Rapier. He was one of the most powerful black politicians in Alabama then, having run for secretary of state in 1870. He used his newspaper to promote the Republican Party, freedmen’s rights, and his own successful campaign for Congress.
In Washington, D.C., he worked diligently for passage of Civil Rights legislation outlawing racial discrimination in schools, accommodations, and transportation. But interest in an egalitarian society was waning in Washington and across America as Reconstruction drew to a close. The final version of the Civil Rights Act of 1875 contained no mention of equal educational opportunities. No other measures protecting the rights of black Americans were passed until the Civil Rights Act of 1957.
Rapier was the first of many editors in Montgomery, Mobile, Huntsville, Selma, and Birmingham who championed equal rights in Alabama and documented cases of racial violence. Some, such as the Negro American’s Robert Charles O’Hara Benjamin, angered mobs with their militancy and were forced to flee for their lives. He left Birmingham in 1887 after he called for a violent eruption of “Southern prejudice and intolerance” so those in the North and around the world might see “just how matters stand with us of the South.
It will cause the floods of indignation at such injustice and barbarity, to rise and swell, after that the deluge.” The global reaction he envisioned was manifested in press coverage of the murders at 16th Street Baptist Church some 76 years later.
Committed To Democracy
Like these outspoken editors, Emory O. Jackson was quick to point out hypocrisy and hold politicians accountable. He was committed to democracy and he worked to educate and register voters despite discrimination in voter-registration practices.64 He was a strong proponent of schooling and pushed for equity in per-pupil spending and teachers’ salaries. Jackson widely reported on his sister Ruby Jackson Gainer’s suit against the Jefferson County Board of Education for failing to equalize salaries in keeping with a 1945 district court ruling that declared race-based salary differentials unconstitutional. He actively raised money for her legal battle that was handled by local civil-rights attorney Arthur Shores. Jackson also documented police brutality and bombings and sought for decades to keep both issues on the public agenda through coverage in the Birmingham World as well as his editorials and columns. The campaigns Jackson doggedly led throughout his career often mirrored those conducted by other black Southern editors.
For example, Louis Austin, editor-publisher of the Carolina Times in Durham, North Carolina, was known for the “forthright and resolute” editorials he wrote during the interwar years about police brutality and racial injustice in all its forms. Little Rock journalist L. C. Bates was similarly known for writing editorials in his Arkansas State Press that demonstrated a “crusading fervor.”
Jackson never was chased out of town for his uncompromising position on Civil Rights, but he took the precaution of varying the route of his nightly walk home. A cousin wrote that she was afraid for his safety because “we hear so many threats made against you.”
Run-ins With Police
Jackson told delegates at the NAACP’s 42nd annual convention in Atlanta in 1951 that his life had been threatened repeatedly owing to “his opposition to [the] reign of terror against Negro citizens of Birmingham.” He told anecdotes, as well, about run-ins with police. According to one story, Public Safety Commissioner Eugene “Bull” Connor regularly warned Jackson to leave town. The editor retorted, “The state of Alabama is too small for two big men like me and you. I’m not going anywhere, so you’ll have to go.”
When the United States entered World War II, the Black Press debated whether to support the mobilization. Negroes had made few gains in the interwar years; extralegal violence continued, Jim Crow persisted, jobs were scarce, and homes were difficult to find. The Pittsburgh Courier, which had surpassed the Chicago Defender with 14 national editions and a circulation of about 141,000, decided in February 1942 to mount a double-victory campaign in response to a reader’s plea for full citizenship rights.
“I suggest that while we keep defense and victory in the forefront that we don’t lose sight of our fight for true democracy at home,” he wrote. The Courier called the dual victory over the Axis Powers and Jim Crow the “true battle cry of colored America.” The newspaper became emblazoned with illustrations of an eagle with outspread wings behind interlocking Vs; the slogan “Democracy at Home—Abroad” boldly curved through the letters. Articles were separated by a black line and the letters VV.
For some weeks after the announcement, the Courier published updates on the black newspapers, people, and organizations that had adopted the slogan. The Birmingham World apparently did not publish the illustration; perhaps owner Cornelius Scott opted not to participate. But a boxed notice at the top of the front page, known as an “ear” in newspaper jargon, reflected a message similar to the Double V slogan: “We stand with the People, by the People and for the People. No one is saved until we all are saved.”
Jackson later gave the victory campaign another interpretation when he promoted voting on the home front and victory on the battlefield. That made enfranchisement “a cause, a campaign and a crusade,” he wrote.
On September 16, 1940, eight days after Jackson turned 32, President Franklin Roosevelt signed into law the Selective Training and Service Act— the first peacetime draft in US history. The act, prompted by the escalating conflict abroad, created a system for drafting up to 900,000 soldiers per year in case war was declared.
Jackson duly registered on October 16 in Dothan, a town 200 miles southeast of Birmingham where he was teaching. Military classifications for draftees were established ranging from I—fit for general military service—to the familiar IV-F—men who were physically, mentally, or morally unfit for duty. Additional classifications identified people such as students, conscientious objectors, ministers, and those with a particular occupational status as eligible for limited or deferred service. Men listed as II-A, for example, performed a civilian activity that was considered necessary for the war effort. Managing editors like Jackson fell under this category.
So when he was ordered for induction into the Army on December 2, 1942, by the all-white draft board in Dothan, Jackson alleged racial prejudice. “Exclusion of Negroes from the draft board that ordered my induction violated my constitutional rights and was contrary to the selective service law which prohibits discrimination because of race and color,” Jackson said in a long statement that was published in the Cleveland Call and Post.
Further, he argued that the board’s decision not to list him as II-A “reflected bias and misunderstanding of the vital war role of the Negro press.” Jackson and Scott met with the assistant director of the state’s Selective Service office in Montgomery to try to get a deferment owing to the editor’s “importance to the welfare of the Birmingham World.”
The appeal was denied, so Scott wrote to Campbell Johnson, a black man who was assistant director at the Selective Service national headquarters in Washington, D.C. Johnson decided not to intervene, even though a similar case had been successfully appealed in September 1942 by the managing editor of the San Antonio (Texas) Register.
Newsman U. J. Andrews said then that officials were well aware that editors of some 200 papers were serving America’s 13 million Negroes and added, “The Race paper, more than any other medium, instructs, influences, guides, and directs Negro life and thought.” Jackson stated that the actions of the board in Dothan reflected “a desire … to cripple the Negro press, to intimidate Negro leadership and to use a draft power to discipline the Negro.”
He intimated in another article that the denial of the deferment was part of a broader campaign to destroy the Black Press, whose Double V messages were being scrutinized by J. Edgar Hoover and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Other agencies, including the Office of War Information and the Office of Censorship, were reviewing the papers’ content, as well.
Amid continued claims of racial prejudice, Jackson was inducted into the US Army on January 11, 1943, about two weeks after the sudden death of his mother, Lovie. He served just over two months at Fort Benning, Georgia, before receiving an honorable discharge.
Scott said he was glad officials had decided that Jackson was more useful to the war effort working at the newspaper rather than for the military. World reporter Marcel Hopson remembered the discharge a bit differently. Jackson “raised so much Cain” at Fort Benning testing segregated facilities and calling out racial discrimination at the base that he became “a problem,” Hopson said. “They put him in the army to try to shut his mouth, and they put him out of the army because he was creating havoc.”
By the time Japan formally surrendered on September 2, 1945, Jackson was ready to hold the US government accountable for the sacrifices black Americans had made during the four long and grueling years of fighting. Victory had been achieved abroad. But would true democracy be achieved in Alabama? It was time to take up the battle for first-class citizenship and the ballot in the Magic City.
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