Joe Dickson, Birmingham World publisher and civil rights activist, dies at age 85
Joe Dickson demonstrated alongside Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth before becoming a leading voice in the Alabama Republican Party. He was the chairman of the Alabama State Personnel Board. He died Saturday.
Former owner and publisher of the Birmingham World newspaper, Joe Dickson, who demonstrated with civil rights heroes Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth and Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. during the Civil Rights Movement before going on to become a part of former Gov. Guy Hunt’s administration and the chair of the Alabama Personnel Board, has died at age 85.
His daughter, Jori Dickson Jordan, and his wife, Dr. Charlie Dickson, a former nursing professor at UAB for 20 years, said he died Saturday morning at his home, surrounded by family after many years battling cancer.
Those close to Joe Dickson described him as a caring father, a man of faith and a dedicated civil servant.
“It was like having an idol of some sort,” Jordan, his daughter, told APR. “He was a man that always spoke proudly of family — a man that always cared about his community, cared about people, cared about doing the right thing for people. He cared about doing the right thing for the state of Alabama particularly.”
Until his death on Saturday, Dickson served for 25 years as the chairman of Alabama’s Personnel Board. He was first appointed to the board during former Gov. Guy Hunt’s administration.
“He was fair and firm and just a pleasure to be associated with during the 14 years that I was on there with him,” said John McMillan, Alabama’s commissioner of agriculture and industries, who served on the Personnel Board with Dickson. Before he appointed Dickson to the board, Hunt — who was Alabama’s first Republican governor since Reconstruction — appointed Dickson as his assistant for minority affairs. That was during Hunt’s first term after his 1986 election.
Dickson was a longtime member of the Alabama Republican Party, serving as the leader of the party’s minority outreach program, the Republican Council, going as far back as the 1980s.
But his dedication to public service and community go back much further. Born in Montgomery March 5, 1933, Dickson, his mother and his siblings moved to the Fairfield neighborhood in Birmingham in 1939 a few months after his father died when he was 5 years old in 1938, according to a 1996 interview with the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute’s Oral History Project.
As he grew older in Birmingham, his mother worked many jobs, including a domestic, to support her family. Dickson got a job by 5th grade to help his mom and his sibling, and by 6th grade, he began selling and delivering newspapers — the Birmingham Post Herald, The Afro American, the Pittsburgh Courier, The New York Amsterdam News, The Birmingham World and The Birmingham Mirror.
They sold for 2 cents.
“I didn’t have any problems then because I was making money,” Dickson recalled in the 1996 interview. “But, what I did with the money I made, I always had to take mine home, because my mamma needed it.”
By the ninth grade, he had “graduated” from delivering largely African-American papers to throwing “the white folks’ papers.” He hired his brother and other people to help him. He was popular, too — serving as the president of his high school class at Fairfield Industrial High School.
Years later, his mother would return that money and more, when, after a two-year stint in the Army, she helped finance his first few semesters in 1955 at Miles College, a predominately black college in Birmingham. He credited his mother with urging him to pursue an education.
“My mamma gave me two $50 bills that she had tied up in a stocking,” he recalled. ‘I came out there and I paid to get in school at Miles. Then she gave me the money to buy my first books with. But, that was an agonizing thing for me to have to be pushed to go to school and I was a leader in the class.”
There he would become the freshman class president and inject himself into the heart of the growing Civil Rights Movement.
By 1955, Dickson was one of the relatively few black people who were able to register to vote because of barriers erected by Alabama’s segregationist leaders, among them poll taxes, random literacy tests, quizzes on the state’s representation in federal politics and questions like “How many bubbles are in a bar of soap?” or “How many grains of sand are there on the sea shore?”
After Dickson passed the tests — something he attributed in some part to his having grown up reading the newspaper — he helped others do the same.
“A number of people, they just wouldn’t let them pass,” he said. “It was very subjective.”
Helping other African Americans register to vote was just Dickson’s first introduction to battling Alabama’s Jim Crowe systems of segregation and discrimination. He and his fellow members of the Miles College Student Council began protesting outside Kelly Ingram Park, which was closed to black people at the time.
Their actions would grow after his graduation in 1960 and transition into the Birmingham selective-buying campaign, a 1962 act of protest that involved staggered boycotts that caused downtown Birmingham storefronts to see a massive drop in business after the black community began withdrawing their buying power. Eventually, the white-owned businesses gave in to their demands, only to revert immediately back to segregationist policies. The campaign began again.
“We were asking these folk, if we spending our money, we want to know why can’t our women try on the hats or why can’t they try on the clothes?” Dickson recalled. “Why do you have to have two signs for the water? You got to walk all the way back down to 4th Avenue from downtown to use the bathroom. You get on the bus, you’ve got to stand there. Nobody is sitting there. They got the sign. We just wanted to know why.”
Later, he demonstrated with Shuttlesworth, King and Rev. Ralph Abernathy while working with his longtime boss and mentor, A.G. Gaston, a local black entrepreneur and businessman who provided the first meeting space for Shuttlesworth’s Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights, a group that took the place of the NAACP after it was outlawed in the state. Gaston would later pay for King’s bail after an arrest.
His wife recalled Dickson’s involvement and commitment to the movement.
“We are just extremely proud,” Joe Dickson’s wife, Dr. Charlie Dickson, told APR. “He said it’s not about how much you have. It was never about that. It was about what you can do for other people. It wasn’t about stocks and bonds. People probably think he was a rich man. He is a rich man in the sense of what he did for people.”
Dickson, who graduated with a law degree from Howard University, would go on to participate in the Civil Rights Movement as Shuttlesworth was blasted with water cannons at his 16th Street Baptist Church and King was arrested. Dickson himself was arrested at least three times throughout the movement.
Later, in the 1980s, Dickson became involved in Alabama Republican politics, leading to his time in the Hunt administration and his appointment to the Personnel Board. Having spent time as an insurance agent for Gaston’s Booker T. Washington Insurance Company, Dickson also served on the Alabama State Insurance Board and was the first black real estate agent to have a Century 21 franchise in Birmingham.
“He was one of my early heroes,” said Edgar Welden, a former chairman of Alabama’s Republican Party who was the party chief when Dickson founded the Alabama Republican Council in 1976 to represent the interest of black Republicans. “That was really the first of the modern day Republican party. Joe was one of the first trailblazers. He was one of the first black trailblazers being active in the Republican party.”
That was at a time when the Republican Party represented the interest of working black people.
“During the early years that didn’t always give him pats on the back,” Dr. Charlie Dickson said. “But he thought we should be involved in both political parties, not just one party.”
Dickson was later invited to the White House, meeting President George H.W. Bush and First Lady Barbara Bush. Years before, President Gerald Ford invited him to participate in a conference of state Republican Council groups. He was a strong voice for the black community within the party, his family said.
Among his many pursuits, Dickson helped keep the Birmingham World, a black newspaper founded in 1931, afloat after he bought the paper in 1990. The paper’s former editor, Emory O. Jackson, was a strong anti-segregationist and supported the integration of the University of Alabama. In 1989, Dickson took out a large loan nearing $200,000 to buy the newspaper from the owner of the Atlanta Daily World, C.A. Scott.
“Joe certainly believed in a free press and wanted to keep one of the oldest black newspapers going,” Dr. Charlie Dickson said. “He was very careful in who he endorsed who he supported. He wanted to get the newspaper out to the schools and the churches and to the community. And it was not an easy job operating that newspaper. He put a lot of his hard-earned money into keeping that newspaper going.”
Dickson and Dr. Charlie Dickson had eight children
His funeral will be Saturday, July 28, 2018 at 12 p.m. at his childhood church, Mount Pilgrim Baptist Church in Fairfield, Alabama.
The public viewing will be at noon, July 27.
Jordan, his daughter, who is pursuing a career in law because of her father, said her most lasting memory of her father was his faith. He read the Bible almost daily. But he also read widely, including almost any religious text about God, among them the Koran, she said.
His favorite passage was the 23rd Psalm.
“The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want,” it reads. “He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.”
“He believed in hard work,” she said. “He believed that if you didn’t have anything you needed a work ethic and believe in yourself and believe in helping others. Whatever you attempted to do, do the best at it. Always work the hardest to do the best at whatever you attempted to accomplish or envisioned you wanted to participate in.”
Gov. Kay Ivey extends statewide mask order, allows limited nursing home visitations
“This mask ordinance is working. It works, and we have evidence of that,” State Health Officer Scott Harris said.
Gov. Kay Ivey on Wednesday extended Alabama’s statewide mask order, citing the upcoming general election and a reduction in the spread of the virus since her order went into effect in July. Ivey’s new order also allows for limited visitations in state nursing homes, and keeps all other previous social distancing restrictions in place.
“I’d hate to see us pull back too quickly and negate the progress that we’ve made in our daily positive numbers and our hospitalization rates by risking another spike due to a false sense of security, the upcoming winter months, the flu season and a host of other reasons,” Ivey said during a press conference Wednesday.
Ivey said that with the Nov. 3 Election Day nearing “it’s important to have a safe environment where our poll workers poll watchers, and those of us who would like to vote in person.”
Ivey said that voters aren’t required to wear a mask to vote in person, “I’m certainly going to wear my mask because I want to protect the poll workers and others that are going into the polls as well.”
Alabama State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris said state hospitals are caring for about half the number of COVID-19 patients than were hospitalized in late July, during a surge in cases, hospitalizations and deaths, and just before the mask order was issued.
“This mask ordinance is working. It works, and we have evidence of that,” Harris said. “There have not been any additional restrictions imposed on our state since this Stay at Home order at the end of April.”
Harris noted an August study released by the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control that looked at that state’s jurisdictional mask orders, and found that in the 40 percent of jurisdictions that have mask orders COVID-19 cases were reduced by nearly half, compared to an increase in cases by 30 percent in jurisdictions without mask orders.
White House Coronavirus Task Force Member Dr. Deborah Birx during a visit to Alabama last week urged Ivey to extend the mask order. Birx had praised Ivey’s statewide mask mandate during a previous visit to the state in July, when nine of the first 13 days of that month saw daily case increases in COVID-19 cases statewide of more than 1,000.
Ivey’s amended “safer-at-home” order also states that beginning Friday, hospitals and nursing homes shall ensure that each patient or resident can have one caregiver or visitor at a time, with some exceptions.
Ivey’s order states that the changes are “subject to reasonable restrictions imposed on the entrance of persons because of the COVID-19 county positivity rate, the facility’s COVID-19 status, a patient’s or resident’s COVID-19 status, caregiver/visitor symptoms, lack of adherence to proper infection control practices, or other relevant factors related to the COVID-19 pandemic, consistent with the following guidance from the federal government,” and goes on to list links to Centers for Medicaid and Medicaid Services guidance for the different facilities.
Ivey said during the Wednesday press conference that none of her previous statewide orders prevented anyone from accompanying a loved one into a hospital, and said despite that, there has been some confusion on the matter. She said her amended order made that fact clear.
Dr. Don Williamson, president of the Alabama Hospital Association, told The Montgomery Advertiser in June that hospitals have control over visitations. Hospitals statewide have enacted individual varying rules on visitations since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Harris also discussed the work being done to ready the state for disbursement of a vaccine, if and when one becomes available. Harris said a plan for doing so must be given to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services by mid-October.
“Obviously, we’re following very closely the safety data and efficacy data so that we are sure that we have a vaccine product that’s going to be safe and effective,” Harris said. “And I’m confident that information will be available for us, and then we can make a really good decision on that as we start to receive this vaccine.”
Harris said the supply of a vaccine will initially be limited, and state health officials will have to prioritize disbursement for high-risk people, including health care workers, but that the state will release its plan to do so to ensure openness in the process.
Opinion | In Alabama, the past is prologue
Even after 200 years, Alabama’s political approach hasn’t changed much; the fundamentals established by its founders are still evident in everyday politics.
Like people, governments have pasts, and today’s fortunes are either furthered or frustrated by the things that came before. It might be said that even history leaves DNA.
Understanding Alabama’s past is essential to navigating its future because its government’s origins determine that the past is prologue.
Even after 200 years, Alabama’s political approach hasn’t changed much; the fundamentals established by its founders are still evident in everyday politics.
Those who observe Alabama’s governing process closely see the same structural problems impede progress year after year. Resistance to home rule and a regressive tax system are just two of the many roadblocks to a more prosperous state.
Some unresolved issues are due to a lack of leadership, but others are inherent within the state’s original governing procedures. Even the state’s architects’ elitist attitude is still prevalent with near total power given to a Legislature dominated by one-party rule. The earlier settlers’ prejudices are enshrined in every process of governing.
Failure to understand, acknowledge, and change the state’s historical patterns hinders advancement, leaving the state nearly dead last in every metric of success. It doesn’t have to be this way, but the cure is always met with fierce rejection because beyond admitting ingrained inequities, any change would upend 200 years of consolidated power.
When Republicans promised a new day in Alabama politics in 2010, some sincerely believed that change was possible. Still, after nearly a decade of Republican one-party rule, there isn’t a substantial difference in governing practice.
It’s not because good people haven’t tried to make a difference; it’s that there are systematic flaws that thwart reformers while rewarding the status quo.
A region’s founders and its dominant settlers are the creators of what can be called a state’s DNA. Alabama’s government still reflects the make-up of its original colonizers.
Much of the Deep South was established by slave owners who intended to recreate a society based on the Caribbean colonies of Great Britain.
In his 2011 non-fiction work American Nations: A history of the eleven rival regional cultures of North America, Colin Woodard shows how Deep South states were “Marked by single-party rule, the domination of a single religious denomination, and the enshrinement of a racial caste system for most of its history.” He also writes that these cultures supported regulation on personal behavior while opposing economic restraint.
Today, Alabama’s governance framework and, to a lesser degree, its society is much like the Deep South characteristics Woodard describes.
One Party rule.
A dominant religion.
A racial caste system.
And a willingness to impose regulations on personal behavior while opposing almost every economic restrictions.
Woodward’s findings mirror Alabama’s state government.
Alabama’s central governing power is based on a top-down fraternity where a privileged few hold the reins of authority with a whip hand ready to strike.
Even before statehood, Alabama was regulated by an upper class who built the territory’s economy slave labor. The same class gained even more control after statehood.
“By the antebellum period, Alabama had evolved into a slave society, which…shaped much of the state’s economy, politics, and culture,” according to the Encyclopedia of Alabama.
Slaves accounted for more than 30 percent of Alabama’s approximately 128,000 population when it was granted statehood in 1819. “When Alabama seceded from the Union in 1861, the state’s 435,080 slaves made up 45 percent of the total population,” writes Keith S. Hebert.
The state is currently home to approximately 4.9 million individuals. If 45 percent were slaves today, that would account for around 2.2 million people in bondage.
After the South lost the Civil War, Reconstruction ushered in an era where “a larger number of freed blacks entered the state’s electorate and began voting for the antislavery Republican Party,” according to Patrick R. Cotter, writing for the Encyclopedia of Alabama.
But the old establishment fought back and instituted the 1901 Constitution, which permanently ended any challenge to one-party rule and restored white supremacy in government.
A major feature of the new constitution was a poll tax and literacy tests and other measures to disenfranchise Black people and poor whites.
As Republicans reminded voters in the 2010 campaign cycle, Democrats controlled Alabama politics for 136 years. But these were not liberals; far from it. Alabama’s old Democratic Party for generations was home to racists, not radicals.
It was only over time that the Democratic Party became the diverse collation it is today.
With Republicans holding every state constitutional office and the Legislature, the one-party rule continues as it has throughout the state’s history; only the name has changed.
Looking back over the founding years of Alabama’s history, barbarity is searing, and the atrocities unimaginable. Yet, the fact remains that these early framers thought nothing of enslaving Blacks or treating poor whites as little more than chattel. It shocks our modern sensibilities as it should. Still today, the state continues in a system of government steeped in framers’ institutionalized prejudices.
Famously 19th-century British politician Lord Acton said, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
Alabama’s fathers wanted a government that gave absolute power to the few at the expense of the many; that is as true now as it was then.
There is a path to a better government, but as Lord Acton also said, “Great men are almost always bad men.”
History may not repeat itself, but politics does, and that is why Alabama’s history is prologue for today.
Opinion | Capping Alabama Power’s ash pond might be the best bad option
When you look at the actual, real-life options for this stuff — and I can’t believe I’m going to say this — but the plan from Alabama Power seems to be a fairly good one.
It would be wonderful if coal ash didn’t exist. Had humans never figured out that you could blast the top off a mountain or send desperate men deep into the earth to find coal to be burned to produce power, I’m not sure we wouldn’t be substantially better off. Just think of the environmental damage and human deaths that we could prevent.
But that’s not real life.
In real life, we live by the kilowatt. And as a result, we’re left with tons and tons and tons of coal ash — the leftover, toxic remnants of all that coal we’ve burned to keep all those lights on. And something has to be done with all of it.
Exactly what we want to do with it is the dilemma facing Alabama Power and state and federal regulators. And there seems to be no answer that doesn’t tick off somebody.
You can’t just leave it in wet ash ponds anymore, because the EPA has essentially — and very appropriately — made that illegal.
You can’t cap it in place — a process by which the water is sucked out and cleaned and the remaining coal ash is covered with a synthetic liner and then with synthetic turf — because environmental groups say that still leaves a risk that some contaminants will leach into the groundwater.
You can’t haul it away to a landfill — where it would be dumped into a lined pit and later covered — because nearby residents hate it and environmental groups say the dumping can lead to airborne contamination that sickens nearby residents.
So, what do you do?
No, really, I’m asking. What should we do with an ash pond like the one at Alabama Power’s Plant Barry?
Plant Barry has been a major point of contention between the power giant and environmental groups, particularly the Mobile Baykeeper and the Southern Environmental Law Center, for years now. But the conflict, in this particular instance, isn’t quite as simple as the usual cost-v-environment arguments that usually dominate these situations.
Barry’s ash pond currently holds 21 million tons of coal ash. That’s a big ash pond.
It is located just feet from the Mobile River, separated by a 21-foot dike. For years, environmentalists have predicted that the pond is one good hurricane away from a major environmental disaster. (That has proven to be mostly hyperbole. Hurricane Sally pushed the Mobile River level up 3 feet. That’s 18 feet below the top of the existing dike, and the water has never been within 15 feet of the top.)
Alabama Power has maintained that the coal ash is as safe as a big, arsenic-laden baby and that no weather event in 55 years has disturbed the material stored at the site. But the company, after recent EPA law changes, is moving to cap in place the pond — a process it says will virtually eliminate the potential for contamination.
Not good enough, the environmental groups have said. They want the coal ash moved to some other location.
What location? The moon, preferably. Or some other place where humans will never come in contact with it.
However, when you look at the actual, real-life options for this stuff — and I can’t believe I’m going to say this — but the plan from Alabama Power seems to be a fairly good one.
Look, I know that several heads just exploded, but hold off on the emails and angry tweets for a minute or two and let me explain.
First, coal ash is a problem no matter where it’s stored or how it’s stored. Is placing it in a lined landfill at another location safer than capping it in place at Plant Barry? Possibly, but several people — people who are experts in the field — disagree about the overall danger and about the types of dangers related to each option.
For example, capping the ash in place poses a higher risk that toxins could, at some point in the future, leach into the groundwater. APCO officials, and their hired engineers and third-party experts, insist that the new engineering improvements made to the site will significantly reduce that likelihood, making it almost equally as safe as a lined site.
The plan APCO has presented has been approved by the EPA and is being monitored by ADEM.
But let’s say that APCO decided to go with the approach that some environmental groups want — trucking all 21 million tons of coal ash, after it’s been dried out, to a lined landfill site somewhere else. (And no one has a good thought on where that somewhere else is, by the way.)
That would mean, according to APCO’s estimates, more than 30 years of moving this stuff, with semi-trucks leaving out of the site every six minutes and traveling to wherever. Along county and state roads. And then dumping this stuff in another community that I can guarantee you does not want it.
Pardon me, but sending diesel trucks up and down the roads for three decades (or two decades, if we go by most optimistic projections) doesn’t sound very environmentally friendly either. Nor does it sound like a solution that will prevent complaints. It also sounds like a blown tire or missed turn away from being an environmental disaster somewhere else.
Capping this ash in place at Barry will move it another 750 yards away from the Mobile River. It will result in the dike being raised another three feet, eliminating the risk of a flood-caused disaster by anything other than a 1,000-year storm. The site will feature new engineering to cut off groundwater leaching and it will be monitored continuously for leaking.
That all sounds pretty reasonable.
Look, I’m not recommending that APCO get an environmental award or anything here, but at the same time, I think it’s OK to say that they’ve chosen the best of several bad options.
Lieutenant governor calls for end to mask order
“Masks should be voluntary, not mandatory. We have to Make America Great Again,” Ainsworth said.
During the presidential debate Tuesday, President Donald Trump argued for opening up the economy and a loosening of coronavirus restrictions. His opponent, Vice President Joe Biden, has said that he favors stronger measures to bring the virus under control. Alabama Lt. Gov. Will Ainsworth seized on the moment to support the president and added that Alabama’s mask mandate should not be extended.
“I agree with President Trump,” Ainsworth said. “Shutdowns don’t work. People want their schools open, their businesses operating, and their jobs protected. Masks should be voluntary, not mandatory. We have to Make America Great Again.”
Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey, with the support of Alabama State Health Office Dr. Scott Harris, imposed a statewide mask order on July 15 when the state’s coronavirus cases were peaking, hospitals were reaching a breaking point and COVID-19 deaths were soaring.
The governor has since extended that mandatory mask order. It is currently in place through Friday, Oct. 2,
The mask order is being credited by public health officials with improving the coronavirus situation in the state, allowing the state to open its universities and play both high school and college football seasons.
It is not known, at this point, whether Ivey will further extend the mask order.
White House Coronavirus Task Force Member Dr. Deborah Birx came to Alabama just last week and urged Ivey to extend the mask order. A number of epidemiologists and doctors in the state have come forward to echo that call to extend the mandate.
Ainsworth was one of the first public officials to call for an economic shutdown to combat the coronavirus. He was also one of the first public officials to call for reopening the economy after the governor actually did order an economic shutdown.
The Alabama Department of Public Health announced 16 more COVID-19 deaths on Tuesday to take the state’s total death toll to 2,517. Alabama currently has 86,854 active cases of the virus.
The state remains under a statewide “safer-at-home” order. Citizens who don’t have to leave their home are urged not to leave their homes and practice social distancing and wear a mask when they do have to go out.
At least 1,013,469 people worldwide have already died in the COVID-19 pandemic including 210,797 Americans.