The partnership of Jesse B. Blayton, Sr., and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave a keen impetus to the civil rights movement. Blayton’s ownership of radio station WERD-AM in Atlanta and King’s oratory, alongside the huge following of blacks, helped change America over time.
Blayton was a pioneer African-American radio station entrepreneur. The bank president and professor acquired his station on October 3, 1949, for the price of $50,000, making him the first African American to own and operate a radio station in the United States.
His station WERD was also a pioneer in programming what he called “Negro appeal” music, playing early versions of rhythm and blues music that could not be found elsewhere on the air. In the early 1950s, he began publicizing the emerging civil rights movement.
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The 1,000 watt-powered WERD had the good fortune of being housed in the Prince Hall Masonic Lodge Building, the same building which served as the headquarters of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) founded by King. Thus, WERD became a platform for the SCLC and the civil rights leader to reach the masses at the least notice.
King and Blayton arrived at an arrangement where King would strike the first-floor ceiling with a broomstick when he wished to make an announcement over the airwaves, prompting Atlanta DJ Jack Gibson, hired in 1951, to lower a microphone through a window from the second floor for King to broadcast the message.
Blayton also hired his son, Jesse Blayton Jr., to serve as station manager. He conducted on-air interviews of Atlanta University professors and other prominent black leaders to comment on the leading stories of the day.
Blayton remained the owner of the station until 1968 when he sold WERD upon his retirement.
Blayton was born in Fallis, Oklahoma, on December 6, 1879. He graduated from the University of Chicago (Illinois) in 1922 and then moved to Atlanta, Georgia to establish a private practice as an accountant. Blayton passed the Georgia accounting examination in 1928, making him the state’s first black Certified Public Accountant (CPA) and only the fourth African American nationwide to hold the certification.
He also taught accounting at Atlanta University where he urged young black people to enter the profession. Blayton died on September 7, 1977, in Atlanta. He was posthumously inducted into the National Radio Hall of Fame in 1995.