When Jesse Hill, Jr. the retired CEO of the Atlanta Life Insurance Co. and a legendary civil rights activist, passed away yesterday the city of Atlanta mourned him. Leaders in civil rights, business and local as well as state government all had their lives impacted by the late business executive and community leader.
“Today, the City of Atlanta mourns the passing of an exemplar in business and civic leadership,” said Mayor Kasim Reed in a statement. “Jesse Hill Jr. was an essential figure in bridging the divide between the business community and the African American community in our city. His legacy lives on and his tireless passion for empowering generations of Americans continues.
“I stand as a personal beneficiary of his great work,” Reed continued. “His passing is very sad for me personally and for this city. Atlanta would not be what it is today without Jesse Hill Jr.’s extraordinary contributions. We have all of his family members in our prayers and in our hearts.”
In addition to his pioneering success in business and his work with the Atlanta Life Insurance Co., Hill worked closely with Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference that King helped found. Representatives from the organization remembered how integral Hill was to the group’s mission.
“Mr. Jesse Hill, Jr. played a vital and significant role in the civil rights movement, ” said Dr. Bernard LaFayette, Chairman of the SCLC. “Jesse Hill represented leadership from the corporate community which gave financial support and authenticity to the movement for social change. That support gave us credibility and confidence that we could achieve our goals… Jesse Hill’s influence was also instrumental in helping Mrs. Coretta Scott King get the Martin Luther King Jr. Center established.”
Representatives from the King Center heralded Hill’s involvement in the center’s founding and success.
“Mr. Hill’s numerous contributions to the growth and development of the King Center, as our Board chairman from 1979-93 and as a volunteer, were instrumental in all that we have been able to achieve over the years,” said Dexter Scott King, chairman of The King Center. “His energetic example of dedication to the legacy of my father and mother remains an inspiration to us all.”
Christine King Farris, Rev. Martin Luther King’s oldest living relative, added, “I join with thousands of Atlantans in mourning the death of my dear friend Mr. Jesse Hill, Jr. It would be hard to exaggerate his remarkable contributions to Atlanta and to The King Center. He gave tirelessly of his time and talents to The King Center and to so many humanitarian causes, and his contributions have benefited countless thousands of our fellow citizens. Even in retirement, Mr. Hill continued to work closely with The King Center. His death leaves a great void in our hearts, and we send our love and support to his family.”
Hill was also the creator of The Atlanta Inquirer and his passing was reported to the Daily World by David Stokes, Deputy Editor of the paper. No cause of death was given.
During Hill’s Presidency, the Atlanta Life Insurance Company became the largest black-owned life insurance company in the nation. He used that post during the civil rights movement and helped organize demonstrations and collected bail money for arrested protesters.
In 2008 he was inducted into the International Civil Rights Walk of Fame.
It was this confluence of civil rights stewardship and business acumen that made Hill a transformative figure in Atlanta, said Rep. John Lewis.
“During the past 50 years, very little progress has been made in Atlanta without the involvement of Jesse Hill,” he said. “He was a very successful business man, and he used his position as the CEO of the Atlanta Life Insurance Company to get things done, not just to position himself, but to advance the causes of equality, social justice, and humane business practice for all of the people of the city.
“He envisioned Atlanta as a cornerstone in the South of a transformed and renewed America. And he did more than dream, but he worked to make that vision a reality.”
Lewis, the civil rights icon whose visage is now painted on a building located right next to the street bearing Hill’s name, said he had Hill to thank for his success in politics and so do many others.
“He is one of the major reasons that I became a Congressman in 1986,” Lewis said. “Many people in this city, including Maynard Jackson, Andy Young, Jimmy Carter and me are deeply indebted to Jesse Hill. We have lost one of the strongest pillars in this city.”
Hill was not a politician, but was still tremendously civically involved. In addition to his historic time as the CEO of Atlanta Life Insurance Co., he was the first Black president of the Atlanta Chamber of Commerce, the first Black member of the Georgia Board of Regents and the first Black member of the Board of Directors for Rich’s Department Store.
His involvement with voting rights included chairing the All-Citizens Registration Committee and he helped to desegregate the Atlanta Public School system. He also was one of the leading figures to desegregate the University System of Georgia.
Members of the Atlanta City Council took time out to honor and pay tribute to Hill as news of his passing spread yesterday.
“My heart is heavy to learn of the passing of the great Mr. Jesse Hill, Jr.,” said Councilman Michael Julian Bond. “I join the rest of the nation in mourning this pioneering leader. He was one of the greatest leaders in Atlanta’s history. From the era of Mayor Hartsfield to that of Mayor Reed, of the transformative leaders that made Atlanta what it is today, Jesse Hill, Jr. was the greatest. We are impoverished by his loss, but our spirits are inspired by his life’s example.”
Hill was born in St. Louis in 1929, but made Atlanta his home in 1949 and became forever entrenched in the fabric of the city. As an actuary and then as chief executive of Atlanta Life Insurance Company, he opened doors to African Americans in numerous fields.
“He will be remembered as one of Atlanta’s greatest leaders,” said Atlanta City Council President Ceasar C. Mitchell. “His legacy will live on through entrepreneurs, civic and business professionals, not only here in our city, but across the nation.”