As a controversial leader of the National Baptist Convention (NBC), J. H. Jackson often clashed with other Baptist ministers, including Martin Luther King, Jr., who believed Jackson’s opposition to the use of civil disobedience to achieve civil rights was too conservative.
Born on 11 September 1900, near Rudyard, Mississippi, Jackson received a BA from Jackson College (1926), a BD from Colgate Rochester Divinity School (1932), and an MA from Creighton University (1934). He was ordained a Baptist minister at the age of 22 and became pastor of First Baptist Church in McComb, Mississippi. Jackson ministered in several locations before moving to Chicago in 1941, to serve as pastor of Olivet Baptist Church, a position he held until his death in 1990. In 1953, Jackson was elected president of the NBC, which he headed for the next three decades.
In 1956, some religious leaders urged King to run for NBC president, citing the need for dynamic new leadership. Gil B. Lloyd, pastor of Mount Zion Baptist Church in Seattle, solicited King: “As we stand at the threshold of momentous decision on Christian integration, while taking the long-range view of the future of our Negro Baptist ranks, we must have a new leadership which embodies religious zeal with scholarship, group loyalty with clear thinking, and administration with integrity” (Papers 3:443–444). Despite Lloyd’s pleas and those of another black minister, King did not campaign for the presidency.
The following year, dissatisfaction with Jackson’s NBC leadership intensified. The then four-term president was accused by some ministers of flouting NBC’s constitutional tenure limit and of being slow to support the burgeoning civil rights movement. In the midst of the rumblings, Jackson became suspicious that King would use his influence to capture the presidency himself, or elect an opposing candidate. In July 1957, Martin Luther King, Sr., wrote Jackson attempting to diffuse the situation: “These fellows are lying about M. L., Jr., saying that he is against you and he is going to vote against you. You can take it from me, M. L. is not going to have one thing to do with it one way or another” (King, Sr., 29 July 1957).
Prior to the September 1958 convention, King was elected vice president of the National Sunday School and Baptist Training Union Congress, NBC’s educational arm. King sought to place like-minded ministers in NBC hierarchy and requested that Jackson appoint Ralph Abernathy chairman of the Social Action Commission. Jackson rejected the recommendation, despite King’s efforts to lobby on Abernathy’s behalf. Although they were both NBC leaders, King and Jackson disagreed on civil rights tactics. Although Jackson had supported the Montgomery bus boycott in 1956 and donated money to the Montgomery Improvement Association, he advocated seeking change through the court system, rather than by direct action.
The dynamics of King and Jackson’s relationship changed drastically in 1960, at the NBC convention in Philadelphia. King and other ministers were frustrated by Jackson’s leadership and eager to unseat him. They organized support for Reverend Gardner Taylor, an opposing candidate for the NBC presidency. Amid convention floor tumult and parliamentary wrangling, each candidate left the convention convinced he was the rightful president.
At the 1961 convention held in Kansas City, Missouri, Jackson and Taylor both claimed the presidency, causing pandemonium. In the midst of intense debate that eventually turned physical, Jackson supporter Reverend Arthur G. Wright toppled off the dais, suffered a head trauma, and later died of his injuries. Jackson was quoted as saying: “The method of campaign for the presidency was due largely to Brother King. His backers marched in boldly and took over the convention…. This disregard for convention officers and the pushing of folks off the platform was the result of an election campaign so vicious it produced violence” (“Calls Dr. King”). In a telegram to Jackson, King admonished the leader for “giving impetus to a conspiracy which had as its goal a homicide. Such an unwarranted, untrue, and unethical statement is libelous to the core and can do irreparable harm to the freedom movement in which I am involved.” King clarified that he was not present during the debate and demanded that Jackson “retract [the] statement immediately and urge the press to give as much attention to the retraction as it gave to the original accusation” (King, 10 September 1961). More than 30 religious leaders, including Benjamin Mays, Fred Shuttlesworth, Kelly Miller Smith, and Sandy Ray also protested Jackson’s remarks, sending the embattled NBC leader a telegram reading: “Whatever may be our differences within the denomination, this uncalled for and provoked attack (credited to you) upon one of the greatest men of our time will only serve the purposes of the segregationist forces in America who are determined to suppress the Negro community all over the nation” (Mays, 12 September 1961). Jackson later claimed his statement had been taken out of context.
As a result of Jackson’s controversial remarks, conservative tactics, and tepid support of civil rights efforts, King and other dissenting NBC members left to form a new organization, the Progressive National Baptist Convention. Jackson remained NBC president until 1982, when he was replaced by T. J. Jemison.
“Calls Dr. King ‘Master Mind’ of Fatal Riot,” Chicago Tribune, 10 September 1961.
Introduction, in Papers 4:17–18.
King, Sr., to Jackson, 29 July 1957, EBCR.
King to Jackson, 10 September 1961, MLKP-MBU.
Lloyd to King, 28 November 1956, in Papers 3:443–444.
Mays, et al., to Jackson, 12 September 1961, MLKP-MBU.
Paris, Black Religious Leaders, 1991.