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Atlanta civil rights leader, businessman dies

ATLANTA — Jesse Hill Jr., a civil rights leader and businessman who later became the first black president of the Atlanta Chamber of Commerce, died Monday. He was 86.

Hill had a close relationship with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and helped make sure his legacy would be remembered, according to Steve Klein, a spokesman for the King Center, where Hill served as chairman of the board of directors from 1979 to 1995.

"He was very instrumental in developing the growth of the King Center and really a giant in Atlanta civic affairs," Klein said. "I don't think you could think of a major civic project in Atlanta for the last 20 or 30 years that he wasn't involved in."

Hill was born in St. Louis. He graduated from Lincoln University in Jefferson City, Mo., with a degree in mathematics and physics, and earned a master's in actuarial science from the University of Michigan. He joined the Atlanta Life Insurance Company in 1949 and eventually became the company's president and CEO. He retired in 1990.

Hill was named the head of the Atlanta Chamber of Commerce — now called the Metro Atlanta Chamber, in 1978. Hill participated in several economic trade missions to Europe on behalf of the chamber and accompanied President Jimmy Carter on a trade mission to Nigeria.

In 1960, Hill helped create the Atlanta Inquirer, the city's first newspaper for the African-American community. He served as publisher until 1985.

Inquirer Deputy Editor David Stokes said Hill's wife contacted the paper with news of his death Monday. It wasn't immediately clear how he died.

"He helped, along with some of the preachers in the heyday of the civil rights movement, to raise money for bond when civil rights workers were incarcerated," Stokes said.

Hill was also a board member on the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

"Jesse Hill represented leadership from the corporate community, which gave financial support and authenticity to the movement for social change," Dr. Bernard LaFayette, the group's chairman, said in a statement. "His wealth of corporate contacts convinced business and political leaders that we were going to jail for the right reasons."

Hill also worked in voter registration initiatives and helped desegregate Atlanta Public Schools, and the University System of Georgia.

Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed said Hill was an essential figure in bridging the divide between the business community and the African-American community.

"Atlanta would not be what it is today without Jesse Hill Jr.'s extraordinary contributions," the mayor said in a statement.