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Atlanta business icon and civil rights leader Jesse Hill Jr. passes away

By Maria Saporta

Updated with memorial service information (see below)

One of Atlanta’s most influential business leaders — Jesse Hill Jr. — passed away Monday morning.

Hill, 86. was the retired CEO of the Atlanta Life Insurance Co. for decades. During his leadership, Atlanta Life became the largest black-owned life insurance company in the nation.

Hill also was one of a handful African-American businessmen who helped set the non-confrontational tone of race relations in the Atlanta business community.

Jesse Hill Jr.

In 1977, he became the first black president (now called the chairman) of the Atlanta Chamber of Commerce (now called the Metro Atlanta Chamber). He was the first black member of the Georgia Board of Regents and the first black member of the board of the Rich’s Department Store.

Hill also was a key civil rights leader in Atlanta in the 1950s and 1960s, working with Martin Luther King Jr. on several initiatives including voting rights and voter registration in the black community. He helped desegregate the Atlanta Public Schools, and he was involved in the desegregation of the University System of Georgia.

Hill also had been instrumental in the formation of MARTA, serving as a founding director in the early 1970s. And he served as a long-time board chairman of the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Non-violent Social Change, and he was one of Coretta Scott King’s dearest friends. He was a prominent supporter of several politicians, including the late Mayor Maynard Jackson and the candidacies of Andrew Young for both the U.S. House of Representatives and as Atlanta’s mayor.

“Nothing good and nothing of importance happened in this town that Jesse wasn’t somehow involved,” said Felker Ward, a leading African-American businessman in his own right.

Ward said that if he could have had only one friend in life, that friend would have been Jesse Hill.

“Jesse was a trail-blazer,” said Michael Russell, who proudly called Hill his godfather. “He has been such a tremendous asset to this community through his leadership at Atlanta Life and through his civic involvement.”

The stories of Hill are legendary. For starters, he became famous for his 6 a.m. phone calls. He assumed that since he was awake, every one else was awake. The phone would ring, and Hill would start barking out orders or calling a meeting, and then he would quickly hang-up before one was fully awake and able to challenge him. I can’t tell you how many times I was woken up by Hill.

Ward said he finally learned how Hill managed to get up so early. He would take an afternoon nap, and then he also had an early bed time. So Ward started calling Hill late at night, waking him up until he got the message.

“If he ever got into a project, he was always there,” Ward said. “He was so intense, he was downright dangerous to ride with in a car.”

Ward owned a concessions business with Hill and contemporary leaders — Herman Russell, who happens to be Michael Russell’s father.

“Any time we were going into a new city, the person who knew someone in each city was Jesse,” ward said. “We were partners in business for many years, and anytime we wanted a real tough job to get done, Jesse would be the one to get it done.”

Hill also was quite active with the Atlanta Action Forum, a super private bi-racial business group that gathered every month to work on Atlanta’s race relations and build partnerships between white and black business executives. Among the African-America leaders of the day were John Cox of Delta Air Lines and real estate leader Bill Callaway. But Hill was viewed as a dean in the African-American business community.

During the course of his career, Hill served on the boards of eight major corporations, including Knight Ridder, Delta Air Lines, National Service Industries and SunTrust.

“Jesse is the only man I have known who could emcee two separate events on the same night at the same time in two different hotels,” said Ward, who is still in awe of how Hill had been able to do as much as he had for more than five decades as part of Atlanta’s power structure.

Michael Russell laughingly described how Hill could not sit through a major dinner event. If service was too slow, Hill would be jumping up — going into the kitchen to see what was going on.

“He was ADD before they knew what ADD was,” Russell said. “I’m blessed he was a godfather to me.”

Hill was born in St. Louis on May 30, 1926. He was a 1949 graduate of the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan. He moved to Atlanta shortly thereafter, initially living at the Butler Street YMCA. The street where the YMCA is located has been renamed in his honor.

Hill, who had been ill for the last several years, leaves behind his wife, Azira Hill, as well as his two daughters — Nancy Cooke and Azira Kendall.

A memorial will be held on Friday, Dec. 21 at 11 a.m. at Big Bethel A.M.E. Church at 200 Auburn Ave., and a wake will be held on Thursday evening, Dec. 20 beginning at 6:30 p.m., also at Big Bethel.

Here are several tributes in honor of Jesse Hill Jr.

Metro Atlanta Chamber mourns the loss of Jesse Hill Jr.

ATLANTA – The Metro Atlanta Chamber mourns the loss of Jesse Hill, Jr., an influential Atlanta business leader and the first African-American president of the Metro Atlanta Chamber (formerly called Atlanta Chamber of Commerce). Hill passed away on December 17. He was 86 years old.

Jesse Hill Jr. was named president-elect of the Atlanta Chamber of Commerce board in 1977 and began his one-year term in 1978. During his term, he worked with Chamber members and government and business leaders to raise Atlanta’s profile regionally, nationally and internationally. He participated in several Chamber-led economic trade missions to Belgium, France, Germany and Switzerland, and also accompanied President Jimmy Carter on a trade mission to Nigeria.

At the time, Hill noted that “the trip was a very important one for the American people and a very successful one for President Carter. Even though it was symbolic and of good will, it was the first time that an American President had made a state visit to an African nation and it was well received.” (as quoted in the board meeting minutes)

Also during his term, air service from Atlanta to London and Brussels was inaugurated, Georgia-Pacific moved its corporate headquarters to Atlanta, and a public-private jobs program was established to assist the unemployed and private industry match people with job training and employment opportunities.

In a special video celebrating MAC’s 150th anniversary, Hill remarked, “Being the first black president of the chamber of commerce meant quite a bit to me because it meant quite a bit to Atlanta.”

“Jesse Hill was a tireless advocate for the City of Atlanta and a champion for the business community throughout his career,” said Sam A. Williams, MAC president. “An icon of a generation of leaders who bridged racial differences and led Atlanta into the modern era of global business has passed, and we salute him. His legacy of public service and dedication to the city will endure for generations to come.”

Our condolences are with his family and friends.

King Center officials mourn death of Mr. Jesse Hill Jr. — King Center board chairman 1979-1993

The King Center today issued the following statement on the death of Mr. Jesse Hill, Jr., who served as Chairman of the King Center’s Board of Directors from 1979-1993:

“I was deeply saddened to learn of the death of Mr. Jesse Hill, Jr., who was a strong supporter of the King Center, as well as one of Atlanta’s most active and engaged civic and business leaders,” said Mr. Dexter Scott King, chairman of The King Center. “On behalf of the King Center, I extend my heartfelt condolences to Mrs. Hill and the Hill family. 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. His energetic example of dedication to the legacy of my father and mother remains an inspiration to us all.”

The King Center’s vice chair and treasurer, Mrs. Christine King Farris, 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.”

‘From an early age, I can remember Mr. Hill serving as a trusted friend and supporter of my mother, Coretta Scott King in her work to build The King Center and create a living memorial to the life and leadership of my father, Martin Luther King, Jr.,” said Bernice A. King, chief executive officer of The King Center. “It seems Mr. Hill was always there, to help solve problems and keep the King Center moving forward. It is hard to imagine what Atlanta and the King Center would be like without his invaluable efforts. We will miss his energetic commitment and the positive spirit he brought to his many endeavors in service to our community. Our hearts and prayers go out to Mrs. Hill and the Hill family on the loss of a wonderful man and a great Atlanta leader.”

It is anticipated that The King Center’s Annual Salute to Greatness Dinner on January 19th will include a tribute to Mr. Hill, who also served as co-chair of the dinner for many years.

Rep. John Lewis on passing of Jesse Hill Jr.

“I first met Jesse Hill Jr. during the Civil Rights Movement in the early 1960s. He was a tireless fighter for civil and human rights. He conducted voter registration efforts in Atlanta long before the Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965. He was a strong supporter of the Atlanta student movement, the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the work of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and he assisted Mrs. Coretta Scott King in helping to build the King Center for Nonviolent Social Change. He was also a leader in getting African American support behind the development of MARTA.

“During the past 50 years, very little progress has been made in Atlanta without the involvement of Jesse Hill. 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.

“Jesse Hill was a man of unbelievable energy. He did not like drawn out meetings. He was in one place one moment and somewhere else the next. He was a wonderful friend to me. He would always call me early in the morning, and sometimes he would just say, “John, I’m thinking about you.”

“Jesse Hill helped Atlanta become what it is today. He helped support my run for Congress in 1986. As a matter of fact, he came to me when it looked like everyone else wanted to go another way, and threw his support behind me. He is one of the major reasons that I became a Congressman in 1986. 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. “

Mayor Kasim Reed Statement on Passing of Jesse Hill Jr.

ATLANTA – “Today, the City of Atlanta mourns the passing of an exemplar in business and civic leadership. 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. 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.”

Atlanta City Council reflects on the life of Civil Rights icon and business leader Jesse Hill Jr.

ATLANTA – Members of the Atlanta City Council today mourned the loss of retired Atlanta Life Insurance Company CEO Jesse Hill, Jr. Hill passed away this morning at the age of 86.

Hill joined Atlanta Life Insurance Company in 1949 and was named president and CEO of the company in 1973, serving as chairman until his retirement in 1995. In 1977, Hill became president of the Atlanta Chamber of Commerce, the first African American to hold the position. He utilized his influence within the business community to advance the cause of civil rights in Atlanta.

Hill’s contributions to the city are numerous and profound. Hill led efforts to fully integrate the University System of Georgia; increase African American voter registration numbers; and to expand African American access to affordable mortgages.

Hill advised former Mayors Maynard Jackson and Andrew Young in capacities both official and unofficial. He was integral in bringing the 1996 Centennial Olympic Games to Atlanta.

He was a founding director on the board of MARTA and the first African American to serve on the University System of Georgia Board of Regents. The Atlanta Inquirer newspaper owes its existence to his stewardship.

In 2001, the city of Atlanta renamed Butler Street between John Wesley Dobbs and Martin Luther King, Jr. Drive to Jesse Hill, Jr. Drive in his honor.

Members of the Atlanta City Council released the following statements on the passing of Hill:

“I was deeply saddened at the news of Mr. Hill’s death. I am thankful for his influence on the African-American civic and business communities. He will be remembered as one of Atlanta’s greatest leaders. His legacy will live on through entrepreneurs, civic and business professionals, not only here in our city, but across the nation.” – Atlanta City Council President Ceasar C. Mitchell

“My heart is heavy to learn of the passing of the great Mr. Jesse Hill, Jr. 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.” – Michael Julian Bond, Post 1 At-Large

“Jesse Hill, Jr. is going to be missed by many as one of the city’s outstanding visionaries and leaders who has an important role in history as a activist for civil rights. He paid his dues to so many important causes and for that we are thankful. As we make decisions, we will always keep him as a reference point of a positive example by which to lead.” – C.T. Martin, District 10

“Mr. Hill was truly an iconic figure in Atlanta. As I went through some of the notes between him and my family, I reflected on the tremendous work he did for the Butler Street YMCA. He possessed a memory and mind on par with the latest big data supercomputers. If you ever had a meeting with him, you had better be prepared before, during, and after. He will be truly missed. I am so appreciative of what he did not only for me personally, but for the African American community, Atlanta as a whole, and in particular for the Butler Street Y. My thoughts and prayers will remain with his family.” – Kwanza Hall, District 2

“I feel lucky to have had the privilege to meet and talk with Mr. Jesse Hill Jr. on several occasions. He was one of Atlanta’s great business and civic leaders for a number of decades, whose passion for this city was second to none. I am saddened by our city’s loss, as we owe Mr. Hill a great debt of gratitude for his service.” – H. Lamar Willis, Post 3 At-Large

“I am deeply saddened by the passing of Mr. Hill. He truly loved this city and passionately did all he could to make it a better place. His legacy of dedication and service is an example for all to follow.” – Keisha Lance Bottoms, District 11

DeKalb CEO Burrell Ellis Statement on the passing
of Jesse Hill Jr.

“Jesse Hill’s influence has been felt in all areas of humanity; government, finance and education. He was a champion of the Civil Rights Movement and one of the first and the few that realized the importance of personal wealth to the African American community. He left a lasting impression and will be sorely missed,” said CEO Burrell Ellis.

Maria Saporta

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.



  1. I Bump G December 17, 2012 7:08 pm

    It’s amazing how the important people do not rush to the front pages.  Sad that those in the know do not inform us until someone like this dies.  Condolences to loved ones.  I hope that we will be given the full story soon.Report


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