By Maria Saporta
An amazing array of leaders and followers paid homage to Jesse Hill Jr. Friday at his memorial service at Big Bethel AME Church on Auburn Avenue.
Hill, 86, passed away on Monday, Dec. 17 after a long illness.
But Friday’s memorial service demonstrated that Hill’s contributions to Atlanta, Georgia and the nation will continue to live on.
In his eulogy of Hill, former Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young said he was reminded of a Quaker expression: “The wheel goes round because the center is at peace.”
Hill, known for juggling several initiatives and causes at the same time, was someone who could go round and round because his center was at peace.
“He was a star circling around many suns,” Young said. ”He was the energizer bunny. He never stayed any place long. That perpetual energy is what gave us Jesse Hill’s Atlanta.”
Hill arrived in Atlanta in 1949, first living in the Butler Street YMCA (only a block away from Big Bethel). Shortly thereafter, Hill joined the Atlanta Life Insurance Co., a leading African-American-owned enterprise on Auburn Avenue, eventually becoming its president and CEO.
But Hill was probably better known for all the civic initiatives he undertook — becoming actively involved with the Civil Rights movement, helping with voter registration, helping in the creating of MARTA, supporting local, state and national politicians and countless other game-changing efforts.
Legendary builder Herman Russell remembered meeting Hill more than 50 years ago at the Butler Street YMCA. “The connection was so powerful that we never turned loose of each other,” Russell said. “Jesse was my hero, my brother.”
Businessman Felker Ward recounted a story of when Hill was running late for a meeting at Atlanta Life to meet with the late John Cox of Delta Air Lines. “It was raining real hard, and Jesse came in and said: ‘John, we’ve got to do something about this rain.”
Vernon Jordan, a former Atlantan who has become a power broker in political and business circles nationwide, said that “to measure the life work, accomplishments and meaning of Jesse Hill Jr. is as if one would take a thimble to try to empty an ocean. Something vast and noble has passed from among us.”
Former Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin, also one of the invited speakers at the service, said Hill was known for calling emergency meetings, all with a purpose.
“Jesse had made more calls by 7 a.m. than most people made in a day,” Franklin said.
One recurring theme throughout the service was that Hill “walked with kings but never lost the common touch.”
Rev. Dr. Michael Stinson, senior pastor of Big Bethel, said Hill had been an advisor to presidents, governors and mayors. He was a bridge builder who was able to bring people together to work for the greater good.
“Everything that Jesse accomplished came from the heart,” said Christine Farris, sister of the Civil Rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. “He truly loved this city and all its people, and we truly loved him back. He was one of the most dedicated supporters of my brother, Martin Luther King Jr.”
Nearly everyone who spoke talked about Hill’s partnership with his wife, Azira, and the love he had for his children and grand-children.
As evidence of the role Hill played in the community, hundreds of leaders and influential citizens filled the church with some people standing up against the wall. Among those in attendance were Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, former Atlanta Mayor Bill Campbell, developer Egbert Perry, Martin Luther King III, Bernice King, Ingrid Saunders Jones, Kent Matlock, John Portman, Dr. Louis Sullivan, and William Taggart, the current CEO of the Atlanta Life Financial Group.
Hill is being buried at South-View Cemetery.