4 weeks ago

Alabama’s Jesse Lewis Sr. has seen and made nearly a century of history

Jesse J. Lewis Sr. has lived almost a century of history and, along the way, made some of his own.

Born Jan. 3, 1925, Lewis last month celebrated his 96th birthday. He grew up in the Great Depression, dropped out of high school, served under Gen. George Patton in World War II, suffered through the racial hatred of Jim Crow and the civil rights era, became a serial entrepreneur, earned five academic degrees, served in the cabinet of one of Alabama’s most controversial politicians, spent a decade as a college president and this past year witnessed a deadly pandemic unlike anything he has seen while watching the social justice movement unfold.

Across 11 decades, Lewis has learned many life lessons, which he shared in his book “One Man’s Opinion: Together We Can Do This,” published in 2020. Lewis sat down recently with Alabama Power CEO Mark Crosswhite for a conversation on legacy, lessons learned, the events of 2020 and how people can work together toward a brighter future.

Alabama Power CEO Mark Crosswhite chats with Birmingham business and community legend Jesse Lewis Sr. from Alabama NewsCenter on Vimeo.

Lewis said he wrote the book “primarily for young Blacks” to help them understand how to succeed in life. The book emphasizes education, entrepreneurship and the power – and necessity – of voting as Lewis shares his life story and what he has learned along the way.

As Crosswhite said of the book, “Your intended audience may have been young Black people, but I will tell you there are lessons in the book for people of every color. … It is a book of optimism and hope, and some tough talk and straight talk, and I know that’s what you intended it to be.”

Lewis’ story begins in Northport, Alabama, where his grandmother Sarah Davis raised him and four of his younger cousins in a small shotgun house.

“I was the oldest, and the bad thing about being the oldest, you’re the one who has to bring some money home to feed the other children,” Lewis said. “All these kids didn’t have no father. We learned how to make a living. It was the responsibility of everybody to bring home a little piece of money every day. That’s one of my great assets.”

He developed that asset cutting grass, selling pies his grandmother made and helping run a laundry business. Lewis honed his entrepreneurial skills in the Army, which he joined during World War II. He was a high school dropout and just 16 years old. “If you were a person of color and you walked up … they didn’t ask you nothing,” he said.

Lewis sent “every penny” of his pay to his grandmother. He did laundry for other soldiers and sold them candy and other items so he’d have some spending money.

His commanding officer was from Auburn and appointed Lewis battalion supply sergeant. The battalion built bridges and it was Lewis’ job to make sure the soldiers had the supplies they needed.

“They didn’t know I didn’t have any education. I had just finished the 10th grade,” he said.

What Lewis figured out is that when given the opportunity to hire a dozen soldiers from the battalion to keep the supplies going, “I picked out the smartest ones in the group. I was the dumbest in the group.” Lewis said the battalion “won every award for two years on having the best run battalion in the 183rd Engineers.”

After the war, Lewis used the GI Bill to get an education. In 1954, after he graduated from Booker T. Washington Business College in Birmingham, he created Jesse J. Lewis & Associates. The company was one of the nation’s first Black-owned PR firms and now operates as Agency54, a full-service marketing and advertising agency.

When Lewis was a student at Miles College in Birmingham and working at the school newspaper, he called Alabama Gov. George Wallace and asked him for an interview. Wallace, a staunch segregationist, agreed.

“I was the head of the publication and my dream was to interview George Wallace,” Lewis told Crosswhite. “I asked him, I said, ‘Governor, are you a racist?’ And he said, ‘Yes.’ That shocked me. … He said, ‘Yes, I am. I wasn’t born one, nobody is born one, but I was trained by my grandfather and my father. They trained me to be a racist, but I’m not training my children to be racists. And in addition to that, I’m not going to die a racist.’”

In 1964, just after the height of the civil rights struggle in Birmingham, Lewis founded The Birmingham Times, as he put it in his book, “because there was no voice within the Black community to speak for it.” While Lewis no longer owns the newspaper, it continues to publish weekly. He is its publisher emeritus and still contributes an occasional column.

After Lewis’ interview with Wallace, the pair forged an unlikely friendship that led to Lewis working on Wallace’s 1968 independent campaign for president. Lewis says of Wallace being paralyzed from shots fired by Arthur Bremer during Wallace’s 1972 campaign for president: “My guess would be if he had not gotten shot he would be president.

“Gov. Wallace was one of the best politicians I’ve ever seen in my lifetime,” Lewis said. “He just had the knack of saying the right thing at the right time. He was one of my favorite persons out of all the people I know.”

Lewis said he was asked once about running for public office and he strongly considered doing it – until his wife, Helen, “told me she wouldn’t vote for me. I said if your wife is telling you she won’t vote for you, you’re not a politician.”

In 1975, Wallace appointed Lewis to be the state’s director of Traffic Safety, becoming the first Black since Reconstruction to serve in an Alabama governor’s cabinet. Lewis drew criticism from many Blacks at the time for going to work for Wallace.

In 1978, the state Board of Education appointed Lewis president of Lawson State Technical College, a position he held until 1987.

Through the decades, Lewis continued to create businesses. He established the Lewis Group, a public policy consulting firm, in 1995 while Jesse J. Lewis & Associates continued operations as Elements Communications. Lewis merged Elements with the Lewis Group in 2013. The firm rebranded as Agency54 in 2016, and Lewis continues as its chairman.

This past year, more than six decades after Rosa Parks’ refusal to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus sparked the modern civil rights era, a series of deaths of unarmed Blacks – several at the hands of police – triggered a social justice movement across the United States. Crosswhite asked Lewis to compare the two movements.

“The only comparison you could make, once upon a time Alabama was classified as one of the worst states in the world as it relates to treatment of Blacks,” Lewis said. “That’s not true today. … I can see the progress. I can feel the progress.

“It’s not where it should be, but as my grandmother said, ‘Be going in the right direction.’ We’re moving in the right direction,” he said.

Even before the social justice movement swept across America this past summer, the country had confronted, and continues to confront, COVID-19. More than 441,000 Americans (including about 7,700 Alabamians) have died as of Feb. 1, according to Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resources Center tracking.

Lewis, ever the optimist, believes the pandemic will make Americans a stronger people.

“You’re going to come out with some better people. You’re going to come out with people having more sensitivity to one another. They’re helping one another more and more and more,” he said. “It’s not going to end today, but I’m going to guarantee when this thing is over … you’re going to have people pulling together more than they ever have before.”

During Black History Month, Alabama NewsCenter is celebrating the culture and contributions of those who have shaped our state and those working to elevate Alabama today. Visit AlabamaNewsCenter.com throughout the month for stories of Alabamians past and present.

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

1 hour ago

Schoolyard Roots growing stronger, smarter kids in Alabama

When kids participate in the life of a garden, they see the complete cycle of growing food, cooking and preparing it to eat. School gardens are exciting places for kids to learn basic academic subjects, too.

The Tuscaloosa community came together more than 10 years ago to develop a garden-based learning program called the Druid City Garden project, now called Schoolyard Roots.

Schoolyard Roots employs a full-time teaching staff that provides garden lessons for students, as well as professional development training for teachers. The school gardens provide an outdoor experience rare to many students. They are more likely to make healthy choices and try new foods. Students gain a sense of responsibility, to collaborate and work together as a team.

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“When we see a child’s health and education improve, we know that we’re not only investing in that child’s life today – we’re helping them build a better future,” said Nicole Gelb Dugat, interim executive director. “Schoolyard Roots builds community through food. By increasing access to fresh, locally grown produce, we empower our community to make healthy and sustainable food choices.”

In March 2020, the impact of COVID-19 significantly affected the teaching community. Almost immediately, the Schoolyard Roots team began distributing produce from its gardens directly to local families. By the end of last year, the program had distributed more than 750 pounds of fresh garden vegetables to the community.

“We stewarded our gardens as fresh-air sanctuaries, where children and adults could relax, refocus and reconnect,” said Dugat. “Through it all, we shared vegetables and flowers. We cultivated moments of peace and learned together. We could not have done any of it without our incredible community of supporters.”

They found hope and inspiration in the small miracle of seeds planted by the students. Gardens bring joy, peace and courage in times of struggle. And gardens remind us to have hope for new growth and what is to come.

Schoolyard Roots partners with Tuscaloosa-area elementary schools to bring learning to life through teaching gardens. The nonprofit works in 11 elementary schools across Tuscaloosa County.

Its mission is to build healthy communities through food with the Gardens 2 Schools program.

Gardens support and encourage healthful eating as a key component of children’s physical wellbeing, which can aid their academic and social success, too. The garden is woven through many aspects of a school’s curriculum and adapted for different grade levels.

“The Gardens 2 Schools program cultivates curiosity,” Dugat said. “The program teaches the students how to work together (and) learn self-reliability and compassion.”

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

2 hours ago

Has Washington’s stimulus measures saved our economy?

Congress is expected to soon pass President Biden’s $1.9 trillion COVID-19 stimulus package, the fourth major response to the pandemic. Did these measures save our economy from a protracted recession?

Our initial response might be yes because of last spring’s economic free-fall. The stock market declined 20%. Unemployment jumped from 3.5% in February to 14.8% in April, the highest level since the Great Depression. GDP fell 10% in the second quarter.

The economy stopped collapsing and began regaining ground. The stock market hit new record highs. Unemployment fell to 6.3% in January and inflation-adjusted GDP in the fourth quarter of 2020 was within 2% of the 2019 level. Post hoc ergo prompter hoc, however, is a logical fallacy.

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Macroeconomists disagree over whether government spending can lift an economy out of recession. Keynesians, following John Maynard Keynes’ analysis of the Great Depression, see a role for government stabilization. Austrians in the tradition of Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek argue that government often causes recessions. New classical analysis has blown many holes in Keynesian theories.

Regardless of the efficacy of a fiscal stimulus, our economy may not have faced a recession in 2020. The COVID-19 slump arguably resembled an off-season shutdown in a resort community more than a recession. Except that the pandemic shutdown was unexpected while seasonal closures are planned.

The economy could have been expected to bounce back on its own if the business closure and stay-at-home orders did not last too long. And this seemingly happened during the summer and fall.

How can we assess the stimulus spending? The Payroll Protection Plan and augmented unemployment likely kept some persons employed and softened the financial blow for idled workers. These programs could also be viewed as compensation owed by the government for business closure orders, not a stimulus. Personal saving has risen sharply, so many households’ stimulus checks produced little spending.

Unemployment programs have been beset by fraud. The Foundation for Government Accountability estimates that fraudulent schemes siphoned off $36 billion, more than the $26 billion in unemployment compensation paid out in all of 2019. Do Keynesians think fraud is a fiscal stimulus?

One trillion stimulus dollars were unspent as of January 2021. While some Republicans argued that we should spend this money before approving President Biden’s proposal, the unspent money was in the process of being spent. Still, money not yet spent did not stimulate the economy in 2020.

Proponents of fiscal stimulus warned that the economy would sputter without a fall stimulus. One forecast warned of a five percentage point increase in unemployment and 5% decline in GDP. The House and Senate did not agree on an encore to the CARES Act until December. And yet unemployment fell and GDP grew in the fourth quarter.

Even if some spending helped in 2020, the current stimulus package is almost certainly unnecessary. The Congressional Budget Office was already expecting growth to recover “rapidly,” with GDP surpassing the pre-pandemic level by mid-year and unemployment returning to its prior level by early 2022. For comparison, after the Great Recession unemployment did not reach its 2007 level until 2016.

President Biden’s package includes $500 billion to stabilize state budgets. States operate under balanced budget rules, so revenue declines due to the pandemic would trigger spending cuts potentially slowing the recovery. The $500 billion was based on an 8% decline in state revenues; the Wall Street Journal reports that revenues will be down only 1.6%.

Whatever the verdict on the stimulus spending, it worsened the national debt by about $3 trillion. The long-term debt impact may easily offset any short-term boost to the recovery.

The economic case that government spending can prevent or end a recession is weak. Fortunately, the COVID-19 shutdowns did not trigger a prolonged recession. While we might say, “Better safe than sorry,” the cost of the stimulus will be with us for years to come.

Daniel Sutter is the Charles G. Koch Professor of Economics with the Manuel H. Johnson Center for Political Economy at Troy University and host of Econversations on TrojanVision. The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of Troy University.

2 hours ago

Packaging Corp. of America plans $440 million project at Alabama mill

JACKSON, Alabama – Packaging Corp. of America (PCA) plans to launch a three-year, $440 million project to permanently convert a paper machine at its mill in Clarke County to produce linerboard used for corrugated packaging.

Lake Forest, Illinois-based PCA announced that it discontinued the production of uncoated freesheet, used for copy paper and other applications, on its No. 3 paper machine at the Jackson mill in late 2020.

After a temporary switch to produce linerboard, PCA is now making preparations to convert the mill’s paper machine into a 700,000-ton-per-year high-performance, virgin kraft linerboard machine in a phased approach over the next 36 months.

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PCA said key elements in the conversion project include the installation of an OCC plant for recycling old corrugated containers and various pulp mill modifications. In addition, modifications and upgrades will be made to critical sections of the paper machine.

PCA Chairman and CEO Mark Kowlzan said the project will enable the company to meet strong packaging demand and to optimize the Alabama mill’s profitability and viability. The capital cost of the conversion is expected to be approximately $440 million.

“We are appreciative of the continued support from the State of Alabama, the Alabama Department of Commerce, the City of Jackson and Clarke County to help us continue providing quality jobs and a positive economic impact in the Jackson community,” Kowlzan said.

ECONOMIC IMPACT

Governor Kay Ivey said the project represents a positive development for the Jackson mill, a major industrial employer with more than 500 workers.

“Packaging Corp. of America’s reinvestment in its Jackson manufacturing facility will solidify the plant’s future by enhancing its competitiveness,” Governor Ivey said.

“This decision underlines the company’s confidence in its Alabama operation while also preserving jobs and safeguarding local education tax dollars. It’s a win for the company, the community and the state.”

Greg Canfield, Secretary of the Alabama Department of Commerce, said PCA’s project will increase the efficiency of the Clarke County plant while providing a long-term economic boost to Jackson, a city with a population of around 5,300.

“We’re committed to helping existing businesses grow and thrive in Alabama, and the impact of a major investment is always magnified when in happens in rural communities,” Secretary Canfield said.

“With this project, PCA is positioning its Jackson mill for the future, which will significantly benefit the city and the region for years to come.”

‘LONG-STANDING RELATIONSHIP’

Jackson Mayor Paul R. South said the project will allow PCA to continue providing quality jobs while securing a positive economic future for Clarke County.

“The City of Jackson looks forward to working with the corporation as the project moves forward,” South said. “In my opinion, they couldn’t have selected a better community.  Jackson is a safe and peaceful city full of great people, with good schools and recreation and a strong work force, along with extensive natural resources.”

“This is wonderful news for Clarke County and the City of Jackson,” said Stan Hutto, chairman of the Clarke County Commission. “We have a long-standing relationship with this outstanding company, and we are committed to helping them achieve their goals to ensure a bright, successful future.”

PCA is the third largest producer of containerboard products and the third largest producer of uncoated freesheet paper in North America. PCA operates eight mills and 90 corrugated products plants and related facilities.

The Jackson mill’s No. 1 paper machine will continue to produce uncoated freesheet products.

(Courtesy of Made in Alabama)

3 hours ago

Alabama’s Helen Keller was more than a hero for the disabled

She could neither see nor hear. But her vision influenced countless millions.

Helen Keller’s influence reached far beyond her native Alabama. She became a celebrity at an early age and remained so throughout her life.

Born in 1880 in Tuscumbia, Keller was 19 months old when an illness left her deaf and blind.

With the help of Anne Sullivan, her teacher for 49 years, she was able to learn how to communicate.

In her prime, she was traveling across the world making appearances and giving inspirational speeches.

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She became known for her tireless activism on behalf of workers’ and women’s rights, her literary work, and her tenure as an unofficial U.S. ambassador to the world.

“Helen Keller lived her life as an example of what people with disabilities could accomplish,” said Keller J. Thompson, her great grand-niece. “She so desired within her innermost being that people with disabilities be given a chance to prove the many things that they could do in this life. By her own experiences, she knew that people with disabilities could have great impacts on the world around them and every day of her life she was eager to be someone that impacted the world in a positive way, leaving it a better place than she found it.”

Keller attended several educational institutions and was accepted at Radcliffe College, where she graduated with honors, becoming the first deaf person to obtain a university degree.

According to an Encyclopedia of Alabama account, in the decades after college, Keller become increasingly involved in politics. She became an advocate of suffrage, unemployment benefits and legalized birth control for women.

She blamed industrialization and poverty for causing disability among a disproportionately large number of working-class people and became increasingly concerned about racial inequalities. She expressed her views through public speeches, newspaper and magazine articles, interviews and appearances at rallies.

Keller entered the 1920s seeking a meaningful public life and financial stability. The newly created American Foundation for the Blind (AFB) supplied both. Working on behalf of blind people with the AFB, Keller became a successful fundraiser and political lobbyist.

From the 1920s through the early 1940s, she worked to raise funds and lobby state and national legislatures. She emphasized educational and employment possibilities for people with disabilities, particularly those who were blind.

A trip to Japan in 1948 was the catalyst for Keller’s transformation from tourist to semi-official ambassador for the United States. Thrilled by her reception in Japan, the State Department worked with the AFB to fund and facilitate her travels and promote her as a representative of Americanism.

In 1964, President Lyndon Johnson awarded her the Congressional Medal of Freedom. When she died in 1968 at the age of 88, she was one of the most famous people in the world.

Keller’s journey from a deaf, blind girl to graduating from Radcliffe and becoming a prominent writer and political activist provided inspiration to millions of people with disabilities.

Although she left Alabama at the age of 8, she always claimed Ivy Green, her family’s house in Tuscumbia, as home, and she continued to identify herself as a Southerner throughout her life and travels.

Keller said: “Your success and happiness lie in you. Resolve to keep happy, and your joy and you shall form an invincible host against difficulties.”

Throughout March, Alabama NewsCenter is recognizing Alabama women of distinction, past and present, in celebration of Women’s History Month.

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

3 hours ago

Rep. Aderholt warns congressional Democrats moving to allow for taxpayer-funded abortions

FLORENCE — Since 1976, the Hyde Amendment has banned the use of federal funds to pay for abortion except in the extreme case of saving the life of a pregnant woman or terminating a pregnancy that resulted from incest or rape.

The Hyde Amendment has stood the test time, most recently during the 2010 Affordable Care Act debate. However, U.S. Rep. Robert Aderholt (R-Haleyville) warns now that Democrats have the House, Senate and White House, the Hyde Amendment is in their crosshairs.

At an appearance before the Shoals Republican Club on Saturday, Aderholt discussed the possibility of Democrats ending the Hyde Amendment, adding it could come down to one or two Senate Democrats preventing a vote to end the filibuster rule in the U.S. Senate.

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“[O]ne of the things that is most egregious about what’s happening now is abortion — you know, one of those issues that has always been Democrats and Republicans have disagreed on. But one thing Democrats and Republicans could always somewhat agree on was federal funding of abortion off-limits. It’s one thing that if abortion would be allowed, and of course, I’m pro-life. I don’t agree with that. But at least the Democrats would embrace the idea we would not take federal government taxpayer dollars to fund abortion. That is out now. Democrats want to make it so federal funds, your tax dollars, can go for abortion. And that’s a really scary thing.”

“The Hyde Amendment is what we’re talking about. They want to destroy the Hyde Amendment. So, we’re going to do everything we can to make sure we keep the Hyde Amendment. It’s hard on Republicans — it’s hard on the House side, the Republicans being in the minority. Then on the Democrat side in the Senate with only 50 votes — then hopefully, we can get Manchin or some of those others to come along with us to try to make the rule out of order. We’re five seats basically from taking the majority in the House of Representatives.”

Aderholt was optimistic about Republicans’ chances in 2022 to regain control of the House but added his party had to be vigilant in the meantime.

@Jeff_Poor is a graduate of Auburn University and the University of South Alabama, the editor of Breitbart TV, a columnist for Mobile’s Lagniappe Weekly, and host of Mobile’s “The Jeff Poor Show” from 9 a.m.-12 p.m. on FM Talk 106.5.