Jesse Hill Jr., an insurance executive and Black newspaper publisher who was a backstage colossus in business, politics and the civil rights movement in Atlanta died Dec. 17 of an undisclosed illness. He was 86.
Hill was a former chief executive of Atlanta Life Insurance Co. and founder of the Atlanta Inquirer. He hailed from St. Louis and found his way to Atlanta in 1949 after graduating from Lincoln University in Jefferson, Mo.
Hill began his career at Atlanta Life as an entry-level clerk, but climbed to the top of the company. He became a major force in Atlanta’s business community while quietly providing funding for the civil rights movement during the 1960s. In addition to providing operating funds for many of the key civil rights organizations, he provided bail money to secure the release of many of those arrested during non-violent demonstrations.
Although he never held, or sought, elective office, Hill was the advisor and behind-the-scenes influence in scores of political campaigns at the local and national levels—including the successful presidential campaign of then-Gov. Jimmy Carter in the 1980s.
“He really represents the fundamental glue that bridged the divide between the business community and the political community in the city of Atlanta,” Mayor Kasim Reed told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “And he did so masterfully….”
Hill’s journey toward political power began through his involvement in a forum based at the YMCA where he lived shortly after moving to Atlanta. The Butler Street YMCA’s Hungry Club was where Black and White leaders engaged in serious dialogue on contemporary issues.
In the 1960s, he was an advisor to Atlanta Mayor Ivan Allen as discriminatory policies were being toppled. He was appointed the first chair of Atlanta’s Metropolitan Area Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA) board of directors and also was the first African American selected to serve on the board of regents for the University System of Georgia.
In 1977, he was elected president of the Atlanta Chamber of Commerce, the first African American to hold such a position in a major U.S. city. He also was elected as the first Black member of the board of directors of the Commerce Club, the elite venue of Atlanta’s previously all-White power structure.
In addition to being a force behind the emergence in the 1970s of Maynard Jackson, Atlanta’s first Black mayor, he also played a key role in the election of Reed, the current mayor.
Andrew Young, who became Georgia’s first Black congressman since Reconstruction and later served as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and as Atlanta’s mayor, said he never made a move without consulting Hill.
Hill has served on the boards of a number of corporations, including Comsat, Delta Air Lines, Knight-Ridder, Morse Shoes, National Service Industries, Rich’s, S & H Corporation, and SunTrust, often as the first minority member.