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A Birmingham Civil Rights Reformer, and Newspaper Editor, Lost to History

As an NAACP state executive, Emory O. Jackson became a key player in legal challenges in Alabama against racist voting laws. (Alabama News Center Screen Grab)

By Michael Sznajderman

Alabama News Center

This story is part of a series of articles, “Bending Toward Justice,” focusing on the 60th anniversary of events that took place in Birmingham during 1963 that changed the face of the city, and the world, in the ongoing struggle for equality and human rights. The series name is a reference to a quote by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.: “Let us realize the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.” The series will continue through 2023.

As editor of the Birmingham World newspaper, Emory O. Jackson was a reporter, an editor, a chronicler of Black life in Birmingham for more than 35 years.

He was among the vanguard of Black civil rights activists in Birmingham, fighting for the right to vote during some of the city’s ugliest days of Jim Crow in the 1940s and 1950s – before the term “civil rights” was even part of the lexicon.

But by 1963, a pivotal year in Birmingham in the struggle for human rights, Jackson was no longer aligned with the leaders who would ultimately break the back of segregation in the city through a campaign of nonviolent street protests – a tactic Jackson did not support.

Emory O. Jackson, Birmingham civil rights reformer from Alabama News Center on Vimeo.

Those young street protestors were met with blasts of firehoses and snarling police dogs, directed by the staunch segregationist, Public Safety Commissioner Eugene “Bull” Connor. Their courage in the face of violent reprisal helped lead to the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act that made segregation illegal nationwide.

As for Jackson, his opposition to those demonstrations – and the ultimate demise of the Birmingham World, which stopped publishing decades ago – has contributed to his being often left out of the story of the human rights movement in Birmingham.

Jackson’s biographer, Kimberley Mangun, a professor emerita of communication at the University of Utah, calls it a “historical erasure.”

“He did not achieve great things or noticeable results, but he worked fervently behind the scenes for equality,” Mangun said.

“It’s so easy to get this collective amnesia,” said Mangun, author of the book, Editor Emory O. Jackson, the Birmingham World and the Fight for Civil Rights in Alabama, 1940-1975. She asserts that Jackson deserves more credit and recognition than he has received.

Indeed, Hank Klibanoff, an Alabama native, former managing editor of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, describes Jackson in Mangun’s book as “one of the premier journalists of the civil rights era in the South.”

“He was feisty and worked valiantly for more than 35 years to document injustices,” Mangun said of Jackson’s career as Birmingham World editor. “He also believed in the power of the ballot to effect reform at the local, state and national level, and continually encouraged people to register to vote.”

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A fighter for voting rights

Born in Georgia in 1908, Jackson was one of seven siblings raised in Birmingham, the child of bricklayer Will Burt Jackson and his wife, Lovie Jones Jackson. He attended segregated Industrial High School (now Parker High School) and Morehouse College in Atlanta, where he was student government president and an editor of the college paper.

According to the Encyclopedia of Alabama, Jackson began his career at the World writing sports stories and book reviews in 1934 and took over as editor around 1940. He would lead the World, then the largest Black newspaper in the state, until his death in 1975. His column, the “Tip-Off,” was read avidly within Birmingham’s Black community, and among advocates for equal rights across the South and beyond.

Jackson also was a sought-after speaker, Mangun said, addressing audiences across the country on civil rights issues. He never married, putting his considerable energy into the newspaper and his civil rights-related activities.

During the early days of the civil rights movement in Alabama, Jackson was at the center of the gathering storm as a leader in the Birmingham branch and also president of the state chapter of the NAACP – an organization that would later be banned from operating in the state.

In the 1940s, Jackson was an incessant advocate for voting rights. He publicly challenged and criticized the absolute power of county officials across the state who kept Blacks from registering to vote through a host of underhanded but then-legal techniques. They included the ubiquitous poll tax, which discriminated against poor Blacks and whites, and other intentionally onerous and unfair devices imposed on Blacks who tried to register.

For example, Blacks were forced to correctly answer obscure historical questions or correctly guess the number of jelly beans in a jar. In fact, almost any reason could be manufactured at will by officials to keep Blacks from registering to vote, including threats of violence.

As an NAACP state executive, Jackson became a key player in legal challenges in Alabama against racist voting laws; he also led fundraising campaigns to support the court battles.

He urged Black citizens to return repeatedly to county courthouses to demand their right to register, even if they were turned away multiple times.

In 1946, Jackson was actively involved in a successful NAACP lawsuit filed in federal court, with support from the pioneering Birmingham civil rights lawyer Arthur Shores, that struck down the city’s segregated zoning ordinance. The final ruling, in 1947, opened the door for Black families to begin buying homes in “border” areas – poor white neighborhoods adjacent to Black neighborhoods, according to the Encyclopedia of Alabama.

The Ku Klux Klan reacted violently to the development, bombing Black-owned homes and businesses and earning the city the unsavory nickname: Bombingham. Jackson wrote impassioned editorials decrying the bombings, which went unsolved by police, Mangun said.

Jackson successfully scuttled, through a campaign of editorials and letters, a 1947 visit to Birmingham of the “Freedom Train” – a traveling train exhibit of historic documents from the National Archives. The exhibit was designed to inspire reflections about the meaning of citizenship following the conclusion of World War II. But Jackson, who served briefly in the Army, strongly opposed plans in Birmingham to require separate lines for Black and white visitors to the exhibit. The Birmingham City Commission publicly branded Jackson a “communist” for prompting the cancellation of the Birmingham visit, Mangun said.

The next year, Jackson was thrown out of the pro-segregation, national “Dixiecrat” convention at Birmingham’s Municipal Auditorium (now known as Boutwell Auditorium) while he was trying to cover the event.

Bull Connor was among the leaders of the breakaway Dixiecrats – thousands of Southern Democrats who in 1948 opposed the party’s nomination of Harry Truman for president. Truman, who succeeded President Franklin Delano Roosevelt after he died in office, hoped to be elected to a full term in the White House.

Jackson, who would work for the Truman campaign, wrote in the Tip-Off during the Democratic National Convention that the “South is boiling with bias, plotting a revolt, getting ready for bloodless secession.”

At the Dixiecrat convention, delegates selected avowed segregationist Gov. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina as a third-party nominee. Truman responded by signing the executive order banning segregation in the U.S. military. That November, Truman was elected president in what many considered a surprise victory over Republican Thomas Dewey. Thurmond carried four Southern states, including Alabama.

Jackson and Martin Luther King Jr.

In 1955, Jackson was among the very few journalists who reported regularly and in detail about the Montgomery Bus Boycott, which resulted in the landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling ending racial segregation on public transportation in Alabama. The Birmingham World published more than 150 articles about the boycott and subsequent legal rulings, Mangun said.

It was during the boycott that Jackson began a close relationship with a young Montgomery preacher named Martin Luther King Jr.

The following year, in response to NAACP support of the boycott, and the group helping to finance the attempt by Autherine Lucy, a Black woman, to integrate the student body at the University of Alabama, Gov. John Patterson succeeded in banning the NAACP from operating in the state. According to the Encyclopedia of Alabama, Jackson hid some of the organization’s records, including membership rolls, in the safe at the Birmingham World to keep them out of the hands of state officials.

Jackson also was among the Black activists arrested – in the wake of the success of the Montgomery bus boycott – for trying to desegregate Birmingham’s bus system. Shores represented Jackson and many others charged in the case.

But Jackson’s position shifted by 1963, when Birmingham’s most vocal civil rights activist, the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, persuaded King – now based in Atlanta and leading the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) – to come to the city to help lead nonviolent protests against official segregation. Jackson was not enthusiastic about the plan.

“Jackson was really conflicted about the 1963 protests,” said Mangun. “When the direct action started in Birmingham in April, he questioned whether the strategy would lead to effective negotiations and lasting social change.

“He resented King and Shuttlesworth as being outside agitators,” Mangun added, noting that Shuttlesworth had moved away from Birmingham in 1961 to lead a church in Cincinnati, Ohio, although he visited the city frequently and still led the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights.

The age difference between King and Shuttlesworth, and Jackson, who was significantly older, and the fact that Jackson was no longer considered at the forefront of the movement, may also have influenced Jackson’s decision to vocally oppose the protests, Mangun said.

“I’d say his thought processes didn’t align with the younger generation,” Mangun added.

Potential Backlash

Jackson worried too about a potentially dangerous backlash affecting the local Black community, once the protests ended and the organizers had packed up and safely left town. He called King, Shuttlesworth and the other SCLC organizers “upside downers” and “march-for-freedom personalities,” and downplayed in the World’s pages any coverage of the protests, which he described as “wasteful and worthless” and “mass-action stunts.”

“He and Shores and Gaston had been there for years, trying to effect reform,” Mangun said, referring to prominent Black Birmingham businessman A.G. Gaston, who also had mixed feeling about the protests.

In addition, Jackson had long favored the NAACP’s strategy of fighting for civil rights through the courts and the legislative process, even if it took time. In fact, Jackson would work for decades on voting rights issues before finally witnessing the passage by Congress of the federal Voting Rights Act in 1965. In any case, he strongly believed the best path to secure lasting change was through legal and political routes, not through street protests.

“He felt there were better ways to accomplish reform,” Mangun said. “He believed in the idea of slow-but-steady action.”

It was a devastating validation of Jackson’s fears when in September 1963 – four months after the street protests led to an agreement to begin dismantling segregation in Birmingham – members of the Ku Klux Klan bombed the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, killing four little girls and wounding about 20 others. Two Black teenagers were subsequently killed during confrontations with police and white bystanders.

It all points to the complexity of Jackson’s character and personality, Mangun said, who described him as incredibly hard-working and generous, but also “brusque, frugal, smart, funny and cantankerous.”

“All aspects of his character were apparent in his editorials and columns,” Mangun said.

On the other hand, unlike many civil rights figures, Jackson never wrote a memoir or autobiography, which Mangun said has contributed to his often being left out when civil rights activists are listed.

And yet, there is a treasure trove of material about Jackson, in his decades of journalistic writings. They can be found in the pages of the Birmingham World, preserved on rolls of microfilm in the quiet stacks of the Birmingham Public Library.

“What impressed me about Jackson was his ability to write day after day, week after week, month after month – to fight for the rights that he and others in Alabama should have had by law,” said Mangun, who spent years researching Jackson’s life and work.

“He waged that fight for 35 years,” Mangun said, “always hopeful that justice and equality would rightfully prevail.”

Learn more about Emory O. Jackson here.