Charles Wesley Tisdale was a civil rights crusader who believed that journalism was a critical part of activism. His motto was to “print the news whether it pinches or comforts.” Tisdale also noted, “I think newspapers that provide information are the most essential tool in a democracy. I always wanted to have my say. This is true liberty, when free men speak freely.”
Born in Athens, Alabama, on 7 November 1926, Tisdale was the sixth of fifteen children. At age seven he ran away from home and began working at a newspaper, pouring lead into molds in linotype machines. At fourteen he was foreman of a tobacco field in Connecticut and the cofounder of a local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. He later returned to Athens, where he graduated from Trinity High School. In 1950 he received a bachelor’s degree from LeMoyne-Owen College in Memphis, Tennessee, working as an advertising and whiskey salesman while in Memphis. He later earned a master’s degree in economics from the University of Chicago. An adviser for numerous companies, he found his true profession in reporting for the African American press. His byline appeared in the Memphis Tri-State Defender, Memphis World, New York Amsterdam News, and Chicago Defender. He edited the Memphis Times Herald and the Midsouth Times.
While reporting for the Tri-State Defender in 1955 he traveled to Money, Mississippi, to report on the trial of the men accused of murdering fourteen-year-old Emmett Till. Tisdale also covered the 1957 integration of Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. After working intermittently selling advertisements for the Jackson Advocate, Tisdale purchased the nearly defunct newspaper in 1978 for seventeen thousand dollars. He declared that the paper would “promote civil rights and fight discrimination,” a stance that was the complete opposite of that taken by the paper’s founding publisher, Percy Greene, a conservative on segregation who took money from the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission.
Two weeks after he began publishing the Jackson Advocate, Tisdale received the first of what became hundreds of death threats. Tisdale and the Advocate staff were routinely harassed by racists and local authorities whose policies he challenged, and he and the newspaper were targets of numerous violent attacks, break-ins, and vandalism. On 26 January 1998 Molotov cocktails were thrown through the windows of the Advocate offices, and in 2003 men who identified themselves as Ku Klux Klansmen riddled the office with bullets. In addition, the paper faced harassment from the Internal Revenue Service, Federal Bureau of Investigation, and various Mississippi state agencies.
Battling government corruption, prison injustice, and racism, the Jackson Advocate, a weekly that cost fifty cents per copy, garnered an impressive national and international readership, with a circulation of twenty thousand. Tisdale also began a weekly radio program, Views from the Black Side, on Jackson’s WNPR; was a member of the national coordinating committee for the National Alliance against Racist and Political Repression; and helped organize the Eddie J. Carthan Support Project in Los Angeles. His coverage of the Tchula 7 trial, in which the town’s former mayor, Eddie Carthan, was accused of capital murder, brought international attention to Tisdale and the Jackson Advocate.
The paper’s circulation declined to seventeen thousand in 2000 and to little more than 8,000 by 2010. However, the Advocate has never missed an issue and maintains a strong online presence.
Tisdale and the Jackson Advocate received hundreds of honors for journalism and activism, including the National Black Chamber of Commerce Newspaper of the Year, the Nation of Islam Freedom Fighter Award, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference Journalism Award, City of Jackson Community Service Award, the Mississippi Legislative Black Caucus Award for Excellence, the Southern Christian Leadership Council Journalism Award, and the National Black Chamber of Commerce Newspaper of the Year. The National Alliance of Third World Journalists bestowed the Jose Martí Journalist of Struggle Award on Tisdale and the Advocate.
Tisdale died on 7 July 2007 in Jackson; his widow, Alice Tisdale, succeeded him as publisher of the Advocate. Within months the Jackson Chapter of the National Association of Black Journalists established the Charles W. Tisdale Scholarship for high school students from Mississippi majoring in journalism. Two years later Jackson’s City Council and voters approved the renaming of the Northside Library in his honor. It houses a collection of Tisdale’s papers and writings.
- Herb Boyd, New York Amsterdam News (12–18 July 2007)
- “Human Rights Defender Charles Tisdale,” Front Line: The International Foundation for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders website, www.frontlinedefenders.org
- Benjamin Todd Jealous, Crisis (September–October 2007)
- Freda Darlene Lewis, “The Jackson Advocate: The Rise and Eclipse of a Leading Black Newspaper in Mississippi, 1939–1964” (master’s thesis, Iowa State University, 1984)
- Roland McFadden, “A Study of the Jackson Advocate Newspaper Reports of Social Change in Mississippi, from 1954 to 1974” (master’s thesis, Jackson State University, 1981)
- C. Leigh McInnis, “Charles Tisdale: Newspaper and Community Man,” ChickenBones: A Journal for Literary and Artistic African-American Themes website, www.nathanielturner.com
- George Sewell and Margaret L. Dwight, Mississippi Black History Makers (1984)
- Jocelyn Y. Stewart, Los Angeles Times (14 July 2007)
- Julius Eric Thompson, The Black Press in Mississippi, 1865–1985 (1993)
- Colleen R. White, The Jackson Advocate, 1938–1995: A Historical Overview (1996)