In 1948, James L. Dickerson’s mother was a bank teller in Greenville, who hired Salle Mae Elle, an 18-year-old black woman with a young son, to be his babysitter. Dickerson, a toddler who spat at other babysitters and threw tantrums, approved of the hire. But, some members of the community disapproved of their interactions.
One day, an angry woman approached Dickerson’s mother at the bank with her hands on her hips.
“I just want to let you know that your babysitter has got your son playing in the city park with a black boy,” Dickerson said, recalling the woman’s words. “The way Mother told it, the woman was tossing the N-word around in a loud voice like it was a cheer at a football game.”
After work, his mother asked Elle if she had taken Jim to the park, and Elle asked if doing so had been a mistake. After pausing, his mother told her to take him there anytime she wanted.
“So I integrated the city parks in Greenville,” he said. “I was always proud of that.”
You can’t tell Dickerson’s life story without examining it through the lens of the American civil rights movement in Mississippi. The babysitter story is one of many he has collected over the years while much of his life and career as a reporter, editorial writer and nonfiction author was shaped by ideas of race and inequality in the South.
Dickerson, head of the publishing company Sartoris Literary Group, has authored more than 30 books. He worked as a staff writer and editor at three Pulitzer Prize-winning newspapers — The Commercial Appeal of Memphis; the Clarion Ledger/Jackson Daily News of Jackson; and the Delta Democrat-Times of Greenville. After spending 20 years as a Mississippi expat in Memphis and Nashville, Dickerson moved to Rankin County about 20 years ago to be closer to family.
In the 1980s, he published and edited a national magazine titled Nine-O-One Network that made history by becoming the first magazine published in the South to obtain newsstand distribution in all 50 states and overseas in countries, such as the United Kingdom, Spain and Portugal.
The 1968 University of Mississippi graduate recently visited the School of Journalism and New Media to discuss the possibility of creating a Chair of Excellence in Investigative Reporting and Opinion Writing with a focus on newspapers, magazines and books. Dickerson also discussed the creation of a James L. Dickerson Literary Trust, making an endowment for the chair.
The discussion stems from the success of his book, “Colonel Tom Parker: The Curious Life of Elvis Presley’s Eccentric Manager,” an investigative biography.
Originally published in 2001 by Cooper Square Press, Dickerson purchased the book rights two years ago and republished it under his Sartoris imprint.
“Shortly after I purchased the rights to the book, an executive at Warner Bros., called my literary agent and inquired about optioning the book for noted director Baz Luhrmann for his upcoming film about Elvis Presley as seen through the eyes of Colonel Parker,” he said. “I agreed to the terms and, subsequently, it was announced (earlier this year) that actor Tom Hanks would star in the film, playing the role of Colonel Parker. Priscilla Presley told a ‘Today’ show interviewer that she was advising the director on the film.”
Filming starts in Australia in January or February. It is scheduled for release in fall 2021, Dickerson said. Luhrmann directed the films “Moulin Rouge” and “The Great Gatsby.”
UM Assistant Dean Debora Wenger, Ph.D., said Dickerson was also interested in meeting with students and faculty during his visit.
“Like a lot of our alumni, Jim came back to campus to reconnect with a place he loves,” she said. “Because Jim is a big proponent of investigative journalism and editorial writing that can change lives, he is very interested in helping to keep that focus alive in our school. With his support, we can teach graduate students who are able to make Mississippi, the country and even the world a little bit better. This chair of excellence could be a game-changer for us in many ways.”
Dean Will Norton Jr., Ph.D., said Dickerson has been friends with UM Professor Joe Atkins for decades.
“He expressed an interest to Joe in making a donation to the school in recognition of his lifetime of commitment to investigative reporting and editorial writing,” Norton said. “He is a fascinating storyteller and precise reporter. It will enhance the reputation of the School of Journalism and New Media to have his name and his career associated with the school.”
Dickerson has always been interested in books. In first grade, he received a certificate from the Greenwood-Leflore Public Library for reading more books during the summer than anyone else in the county. By age 12, he had written his memoir, but it didn’t include the many colorful experiences he would later have as Mississippi evolved during the civil rights movement.
His family later moved from Greenville to Hollandale into a community with a balanced population of whites and African Americans. From the time he was 10, Dickerson worked in his grandfather’s department store on Saturdays from 8 a.m. until closing and befriended many customers, black and white.
“With my money, I bought a Yazoo Big Wheel lawn mower,” he said. “One day, it was in the garage, and the garage didn’t have a door. I looked out my window, and I saw a black man about 20 — tall, with a bandana on his head — stealing my mower. So I ran out of the house chasing (him) down the alley. He saw me and left the mower, and I took it back. But I told my mother, and she told the police chief.
“About a week later, the police chief said, ‘I need you to come by and identify the guy who stole your mower.’
“So I went to the police station, and they had about a 16-year-old black boy — short, not tall — and his face — he had been beaten. His face was bloody. His eyes were swollen.
“I said, ‘That’s not him.’
“He said, ‘Well, he’s confessed.’
“I said, ‘That’s not him.’
“He said, ‘Well, Jimmy, you have to say it is because he’s confessed.
“I said, ‘I’m not going to say that,’ and that changed my life.’”
By age 17, Dickerson had read everything William Faulkner had written. It’s one of the reasons he chose the University of Mississippi over an Australian university. He studied English and psychology, played in several bands and experienced many impactful civil rights moments in the first six months of his freshmen year. James Meredith was on campus. So was Cleve McDowell, the second African American student to enroll at the University of Mississippi.
“Once, I was in the cafeteria, and there was a big middle section,” Dickerson said. “I was eating lunch, and Cleve McDowell came in and put his tray down about three tables away from me. Everyone but me got up and walked out. They weren’t going to eat in a room with him.
“He didn’t look like he wanted to talk. He didn’t try to start a conversation. I just sat there and ate my lunch. He ate his lunch.”
Years later, when Dickerson began writing a book, he reached out to McDowell to interview him and asked if he remembered the cafeteria incident when everybody left, refusing to eat with him.
“He said, ‘Yeah. Everybody but one white boy.’
“I said, ‘That was me.’
“He said, ‘That was you? You were the one?’
“He was murdered the day before I was supposed to interview him. They said he was murdered by one of his clients. I don’t believe it for one moment,” Dickerson said.
McDowell, a civil rights attorney who had been a public defender in Sunflower County for 30 years, had been part of a group working to re-examine cases in which African American civil rights activists had been killed. He was found shot to death at his home in 1997 at age 56.
During his first six months at UM, Dickerson also quit his UM fraternity because they blackballed his bandmate, who was Jewish.
“I was eating soup and cornbread for lunch,” he said. “I just exploded. I threw my cornbread down into the soup. It splattered over everybody at that table, and I said, ‘See ya,’ and I never went back.
“I was not raised that way. We had Jewish families in my hometown. Nobody said anything about them. We had Chinese families. We had Lebanese families. We had Syrian families. We had French families. It was just a melting pot in my little hometown,” Dickerson said, describing Greenville as the multicultural center of Mississippi at the time.
He said his friend later transferred from UM to Tulane to attend medical school.
While all of these stories that happened during Dickerson’s freshman year were impactful, one specific incident in 1963 changed his life. On Nov. 22, he was on campus when President John F. Kennedy was shot, and he was repulsed by the reactions of some students.
“He was hated by Ole Miss students,” he said. “I heard a commotion on the street, horns honking. There was a caravan of cars as far as I can see. Everybody waving Rebel flags. They would move a little bit and stop, move a little bit and stop.
“I said ‘What’s going on?’
A guy said, ‘They killed Kennedy. Hotty Toddy! Gosh Almighty! Who the Hell are We?’
“All the things I’ve told you affected my life, but that had a huge effect on who I later became . . . I just couldn’t believe it. You don’t celebrate the death of a president . . .They were Ole Miss students just like me, and that was not acceptable.”
Dickerson’s first newspaper job was with Hodding Carter III, the man he said hired him to work at the Delta Democrat-Times before leaving for a position in President Jimmy Carter’s administration as assistant secretary of state for public affairs, and later state department spokesman.
After a lengthy career in newspapers, Dickerson has authored around 40 books. Some include “Devil’s Sanctuary: An Eyewitness History of Mississippi Hate Crimes,” “Inside America’s Concentration Camps: Two Centuries of Internment and Torture” and “Yellow Fever: A Deadly Disease Poised to Kill Again.”
Dickerson said the next book he’s written with potential to become a major motion picture is about Lil Hardin Armstrong, musician Louis Armstrong’s second wife, whose parents were married in Oxford. The prolific songwriter became the first woman to play in male jazz bands in Chicago. Dickerson said she fell in love with Armstrong, wrote many of his songs, booked his recording sessions, played piano for them and was ultimately responsible for his success.
Atkins said he met Dickerson shortly after arriving in Mississippi in 1981 when he worked as a business writer for the Jackson Daily News.
“His desk was across from mine, and I remember him smoking his pipe and looking every bit like the thoughtful, intellectually inclined person you’d like to expect of an editorial writer,” he said. “Jim had a quiet confidence about him, and he was an isle of calm in what was frequently the stormy sea of that newsroom.”
Atkins said he read his friend’s books over the years and several became important in his own research about the South and its tortured history. Dickerson later published two of Atkins’ fiction books.
“Jim has written dozens of books and contributed greatly to the publishing of many others,” Atkins said. “He believes strongly in quality journalism and its importance in society. Jim dreams big. He’s a man of vision. Not every dream comes true, but many do, and he works hard to make that happen.
Dickerson believes people stay in Mississippi for a lot of “complicated reasons, including the wish to make the state a better place in which to live.” He said that’s exactly what inspired him to create a nonprofit, Foundation for Literacy by the Book, which will develop creative solutions for addressing the literacy problems of the state, he said.
“My relationship to Mississippi now? It is as an observer for the ages and as a catalyst for change.”
Will Norton is a board member and donor of Mississippi Today.