Flourishing amid fear, segregation, and mob violence, the Jackson Advocate emerged in 1938 as perhaps Mississippi’s most successful though ideologically conflicted black newspaper. One of three black weeklies operating in the state at the end of the Great Depression, the Advocate campaigned vigorously for voting rights and education yet secretly supported the caste system that kept blacks disenfranchised. The paper is difficult to consider apart from its founding editor, the controversial and flamboyant Percy Greene, who for years accepted payments from the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission in exchange for supporting segregation as the best means for blacks and whites to get along. Many members of the black community never forgave Greene for his association with the Sovereignty Commission, which even took the form of publishing stories from the commission word for word. Nonetheless, the Advocate also expressed outrage over violence by the Ku Klux Klan, though fear of reprisals led the paper to restrict its criticism mostly to incidents in other parts of the South. Six decades passed before the paper directly challenged such violence, and during the 1990s the Advocate was often called the most firebombed newspaper in America.
With offices on Hamilton Street, the Advocate, a standard-sized newspaper of six to eight pages, existed within an atmosphere of oppression. Like many black newspapers in the South, the Advocate chronicled lynching and other atrocities on its front page yet focused heavily on black achievement on its inside pages. As evidence of race progress, the Advocate printed stories about successful businessmen, prominent black educators, and gifted college graduates. In addition, black athletes in the sports section, fair-skinned debutantes in society news, and jazz musicians on the entertainment page provided surefire proof, the paper reasoned, of race potential. This strain of racial uplift ideology reached back to the appearance of the nation’s first black newspaper, Freedom’s Journal, in 1827. The black press sought from its inception to undo the racist logic that condemned an entire race for the misdeeds of the individual by identifying successful individuals as reflecting the potential of the entire race.
The Advocate functioned in this vein for many years, though Greene was secretly filling his coffers with money from those who sought to deny black readers their humanity. Greene’s editorials reflected his strong ties to the views of Booker T. Washington yet supported the mechanism that prevented blacks from elevating themselves, rendering the editor paradoxical at best. During World War II, front-page stories about patriotic black servicemen and their contribution to defeating Hitler became frequent items, though the Advocate’s editorial page often blamed blacks for their own problems, arguing that racial progress required frugality, industry, and clean living as personified by the individuals touted as race achievers. Editorials routinely exhorted blacks to lead moral lives, reporting, for example, on the high rates of venereal disease among black soldiers, a malady that prevented them from completing their duties.
The necessity for the black press to print news that both informed and had relevance to the black community helped shape the Advocate’s content, which in many regards was aimed at the city’s black middle class. For example, Greene’s column, “Up and Down Farish Street,” contained observations about prominent black residents whom the publisher encountered on his evening strolls—a sort of who’s who of the neighborhood where the Advocate circulated.
The Advocate failed to address many of issues affecting blacks in the state, especially with regard to civil rights during the 1950s. What had begun as a strategy of indirectly addressing racial violence became a tepid reliance on wire service copy gleaned from the Associated Negro Press. Only in small ways did readers interact with the newspaper. For example, the entertainment section featured articles chronicling black entertainers such as Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong and a “Rate the Records” column that encouraged readers to vote on their favorite songs, sold at local music shops. In most respects, however, the newspaper had lost touch with readers by the mid-1970s.
In 1978, after Greene’s death the preceding year, Alabama publisher Charles Tisdale purchased the paper and began deepening its racial consciousness. He appointed as editor Colia Liddell LaFayette, an activist, poet, actress, and teacher who turned the paper into a record of insight and inquiry. Tisdale risked his life by leading local marches against racial injustice. According to the black news website Mississippi Link, Tisdale viewed Greene as a brilliant man who “just didn’t have any character.”
Tisdale’s writings led to many threats. In 1982 two former Klansmen were convicted of firing eighty-four bullets into his office, and in 1998 Molotov cocktails were thrown into the Advocate’s offices—one of more than twenty times that the paper was vandalized or bombed. Most news items reflected protest on the local level and included court reporting on Mississippi’s judicial system as well as the hiring and firing of black employees by area businesses. Under Tisdale, “Up and Down Farish Street” became a column on local black history.
The Advocate’s circulation gradually declined from seventeen thousand in 2000 to about eight thousand in 2010. According to Tisdale, “The thing that has become more complicated is African Americans themselves. They no longer see the need to identify with their own race”—a further irony in the history of one of the state’s most successful black newspapers.
Tisdale remained the paper’s publisher until his death on 7 July 2007. His widow, Alice Tisdale, took over as publisher afterward.
- Jacqueline Bacon, Freedom’s Journal: The First African American Newspaper (2007)
- Mississippi Link website, themississippilink.com
- Julius E. Thompson, The Black Press in Mississippi, 1865–1985 (1993)
- Julius E. Thompson, Percy Greene and the Jackson Advocate: The Life and Times of Radical Conservative Black Newspaperman, 1897–1977 (1994)
- Patrick S. Washburn, The African American Newspaper, Voice of Freedom (2006)