Publisher Tisdale Used Power of Press for the Poor
SCOTT SIMON, host:
The late Charles Tisdale was a champion of civil rights, a dedicated journalist who owned the Jackson, Mississippi, newspaper called, appropriately enough, the Jackson Advocate. Mr. Tisdale bought the newspaper in 1978. And over the course of almost three decades, he published stories that gave voice to the less fortunate, bringing to life the impoverished state of some of Mississippi's majority black towns and exposing corruption among law enforcement officials. Charles Tisdale died earlier this month at the age of 80. He'll be succeeded as publisher of the Advocate by his wife, Alice Thomas-Tisdale.
Benjamin Jealous is a former managing editor for the Jackson Advocate. He joins us from the studios of KQED in San Francisco. Mr. Jealous, thank you for being with us.
Mr. BENJAMIN JEALOUS (Former Managing Editor, Jackson Advocate): Sure. Happy to.
SIMON: You gave the eulogy at Charles Tisdale's funeral, I understand? What would you like people to remember about him this week?
Mr. JEALOUS: Well, yeah, I would like, I guess, people to remember that what he always said is true. That the only problem with new south is that it continues to occupy the same space and time as the old south, that there are two very different realities.
One of those, the one that we report about each week at the paper, is a place that's still very feudal in its structure. It's still very violent in its day-to-day life. And that is still very poor. And I think he really, in some ways, is different than many civil rights leaders, both because he really did come on and seen as a force. He'd always been around as a journalist. I mean, working for other papers, grew and came and seen as a force until the end of the '70s. And his voice got more and more important during a time when a lot of civil rights leader's voices seem to get important. In part, because he really locked on to the fact that there were people who were being left behind even as the country was desegregated.
SIMON: The offices of the Jackson Advocate were firebombed more than once, weren't they?
Mr. JEALOUS: Yeah. Yeah. I had the good fortune to work there in between those two times.
SIMON: What set it off? Any way of telling?
Mr. JEALOUS: Well, the first time, it appears to have been, you know, bona fide members of the Klan. This is in the early '80s. The second time around, it was in the midst of a very heated redevelopment battle in which a group of commercial business owners who, for a time, were exclusively white and to this day are almost all white, sought to designate a very large swath of downtown Jackson as a business improvement district, in what's only the commercial property owners would have a vote. And in the midst of that battle, the paper was burned to the ground. And when it reopened the next week - and one of the things that is notable about the Jackson Advocate is that even though it was burned down twice and riddled with machinegun bullets once, and there were many more times when ads were pulled and economic threats were made manifest, the paper never missed a week.
SIMON: Well, what Charles Tisdale say to employees that must have thought, gee, I could have been - I could have been sitting there when that happened?
Mr. JEALOUS: Well, you know, there was one time when I was getting a number of threats that seem to be coming from law enforcement officials that we were investigating. And I - I asked him how I should respond. And he said point-blank, he just said, do you feel that you are doing what God has called you to do? Do you think that God wants you to finish this story? And I said, yes, sir. And he said, well then, who are you more afraid of - God or them fools?
SIMON: Mr. Jealous, when you talk about the Jackson Advocate under Charles Tisdale challenging corrupt local officials, to be blunt about it, a number of those number of those local officials these days are African-American politicians...
Mr. JEALOUS: Sure.
SIMON: ...and appointees, aren't they?
Mr. JEALOUS: Sure, you know, he really - when it came to these basic issues of integrity, when it came to promises kept or broken, when it came to allegations that a politician may have taken money from, you know, one business interest or the other, all that he cared about is whether or not you were honest. He wasn't going to protect somebody just because they have the same complexion that he did.
SIMON: Did the paper make money?
Mr. JEALOUS: No. Despite the fact that we were not - a not-for-profit, part of the tax code, it was definitely as a not-for-profit enterprise. Let's say it's something that he did because of his conviction to see the world improve for the lesser fortunate people in Mississippi - be they black or be they white.
SIMON: How do they keep the paper going all those years?
Mr. JEALOUS: Well, you know, he was quite frank with people about sort of what the consequence it might be for everybody if his paper went out of business. I remember one time he was on the phone with a white guy who owned a large chain of grocery stores in the area, and Mr. Tisdale's voice came booming out of his office and he said, sir, I don't think that you understand what I'm trying to tell you. I'm a veteran of two wars. I have nothing going for me but this newspaper. If you pull your ad, you will put us out of business and, therefore, I will have both the means and the time to picket outside your house until the day I die. And he had stated it in the papers.
SIMON: Thanks so much, Mr. Jealous.
Mr. JEALOUS: Thank you.
SIMON: Ben Jealous, president of the Rosenberg Foundation now, and former managing editor for the Jackson Advocate. Charles Tisdale, the newspaper's publisher, died earlier this month.
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