Jesse Hill Jr: Activist who worked in the civil rights movement with Martin Luther King


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The Independent Online

Jesse Hill Jr, who died on 17 December at the age of 86, was a civil rights leader and businessman who later became the first black president of the Atlanta Chamber of Commerce. Hill had a close relationship with Dr Martin Luther King Jr and helped make sure his legacy would be remembered.

"He was very instrumental in developing the growth of the King Center and really a giant in Atlanta civic affairs," said Steve Klein, a spokesman for the King Center, where Hill served as chairman of the board of directors from 1979 to 1993. "I don't think you could think of a major civic project in Atlanta for the last 20 or 30 years that he wasn't involved in."

Hill was born in St Louis in May 1926 and graduated from Lincoln University in Jefferson City, Missouri, with a degree in mathematics and physics, and he subsequently earned a master's in actuarial science from the University of Michigan. He joined the Atlanta Life Insurance Company in 1949 and eventually became the company's president and CEO. He retired in 1990.

Hill was named the head of the Atlanta Chamber of Commerce - now called the Metro Atlanta Chamber, in 1978. Hill participated in several economic trade missions to Europe on behalf of the chamber and accompanied President Jimmy Carter on a trade mission to Nigeria.

In 1960, Hill helped create the Atlanta Inquirer, the city's first newspaper for the African-American community, which covered the civil rights protests of that decade. He served as publisher until 1985. The Inquirer's deputy editor David Stokes sai d, "He helped, along with some of the preachers in the heyday of the civil rights movement, to raise money for bond when civil rights workers were incarcerated."

Hill was also a board member on the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. "Jesse Hill represented leadership from the corporate community, which gave financial support and authenticity to the movement for social change," Dr Bernard LaFayette, the group's chairman, said. "His wealth of corporate contacts convinced business and political leaders that we were going to jail for the right reasons."

Hill also worked in voter registration initiatives and helped desegregate Atlanta Public Schools, as well as the University System of Georgia. In 2008 he was inducted into the International Civil Rights Walk of Fame.

The Mayor of Atlanta, Kasim Reed, said Hill was an essential figure in bridging the historical divide between the business community and the African-American community: "Atlanta would not be what it is today without his extraordinary contributions," he said.