Charles Tisdale, 80; used Mississippi newspaper to fight bias
Charles Tisdale purchased an innocuous, nearly defunct weekly newspaper in 1978, transformed it into a strident voice for African Americans and poor whites in Mississippi, then endured the wrath of those who wanted to silence the paper -- and him.
The office of the Jackson Advocate was attacked -- firebombed, riddled with bullets, burglarized, ransacked -- at least 20 times over the years. Tisdale often received death threats.
Yet when Tisdale died July 7 at a hospital in Jackson, Miss., from respiratory failure at age 80, it was with the knowledge that his paper had never missed publishing an edition. After a devastating firebombing in 1998, Tisdale and his wife, Alice, refused to surrender their roles as journalists and advocates, choosing instead to lay out the week’s paper in their home.
“It is widely accepted that there is no one who represents the black press’ mission to fearlessly defend the rights of all better than he,” said Ben Jealous, a former managing editor of the Advocate. “For him, the matter was simple: In order to live for your people, you must live beyond your fears.”
During the civil rights movement, Mississippi and Alabama were hosts to some of the most infamous hate crimes of the era. By the time Tisdale moved to Mississippi in the late 1970s, the civil rights movement had ended and it seemed, to much of the nation at least, that a new South had been born.
But when Tisdale looked at the South through the eyes of a journalist and a man concerned with issues of race, he saw people in power using new ways of achieving old goals.
Before Tisdale purchased the Advocate, “it was just spouting the white folks’ rhetoric,” he told a reporter for now-defunct Emerge magazine in 1999.
In his hands the paper practiced a hard-hitting, in-the-trenches brand of advocacy journalism and tried to offer aggrieved people of all races a voice. The Advocate won awards and influenced major news agencies -- and sometimes governmental bodies -- to investigate the same incidents.
The paper exposed bribery and corruption among law enforcement officials in Mississippi in the 1980s and ‘90s. It brought national attention to Tunica, Miss., where in the early 1980s the town’s residents were so poor they lacked indoor plumbing, instead dumping their waste into an area called Sugar Ditch.
The Advocate regularly covered the use of a local airport by drug dealers. Authorities’ failure to intercept the contraband contributed to the drug problem in the African American community, said Alice Tisdale, who was associate publisher of the paper during that time.
The Advocate also ran stories about numerous black men who died while incarcerated in Mississippi jails. Officials ruled the deaths suicides, but it was suspected that the men had been victims of modern-day lynchings.
One of Tisdale’s most prolonged battles was with a group of predominantly white business owners whose plans to revitalize Jackson’s downtown were actually a strategy for gentrification that would leave behind poor black residents, the paper alleged.
Tisdale’s muckraking crossed racial lines, however. If he thought black elected officials failed their constituents, the paper said so. In the black community -- where he also had his detractors -- Tisdale was a bridge connecting the haves and the have-nots who reminded the black middle class, which he accused of complacency, of its responsibilities, Jealous said.
“A newspaper has to mean something to people, has to represent something,” Tisdale said.
Charles Wesley Tisdale was born Nov. 7, 1926, in Athens, Ala., the sixth of 15 children. Tisdale always wanted to be a newspaperman and began living that dream early: At age 7, he was working at a newspaper, pouring lead into molds in linotype machines.
At Trinity High School, Tisdale was editor of the school paper and excelled in academics and sports. But when he and others tried to organize a chapter of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People, “he was dragged behind an ox cart by white folks to punish him,” Jealous said, recalling a conversation with Tisdale.
After graduating from what is now LeMoyne-Owen College in Memphis, Tenn., in 1950, Tisdale spent a few years at advertising firms but always kept a hand in journalism.
By 1954, he had joined the Tri-State Defender, one of many papers that carried his byline, including the Amsterdam News in New York and the Chicago Defender. He covered the 1955 murder of Emmett Till near Money, Miss., and the uproar surrounding efforts to integrate schools in Little Rock, Ark.
After his return to Mississippi in 1978, Tisdale met and married Alice Thomas, who survives him, as do their daughter DeAnna Tisdale, of Jackson, Miss., and two children from a previous marriage, Beverly Tisdale of Memphis and Charles Tisdale Jr. of Atlanta; a brother, William Tisdale of Los Angeles; and a sister, Nona Hollis, of Oxford, Ohio.
“We’re eager in this country to feel like the past is behind us,” Jealous said. Tisdale “was always here to remind people that the past is prologue.”
Memorial donations may be sent to the Jackson Advocate, 438 N. Mill St., Jackson, MS 39202.