Lo Jelks, Atlanta’s first Black television reporter dies at 83
Atlanta’s first Black television news reporter, Lorenzo “Lo” Jelks, has died at the age of 83.
Jelks’, who grew up in St. Petersburg, Florida, began his communications career in 1965 while still in high school – he ran a weekly music show on a local radio station in his community.
Jelks later journeyed to Atlanta for college and graduated from Clark College (renamed Clark Atlanta University) in 1961. He was the operations manager at WIGO-AM, an Atlanta R&B station, when he got the nod from WSB-TV.
Jelks was hired in 1967 and would stay with the TV station for nearly a decade. Even though he had been hired for the job with the station, Jelks’ transition into television wasn’t easy.
During his first year reporting for WSB-TV, Jelks was not seen on air. Fearing backlash from some white viewers, the station didn’t show Jelks’ face on the air. Instead, viewers saw a black screen with white letters that said “Lorenzo Jelks reporting”. The next year when Jelks was allowed to be seen on air, station management was able to remind critics they had been hearing from Jelks for a year.
Prior to his hiring, unprecedented pressure was mounting at the time for news stations to hire Black reporters. A report, commissioned by then President Lyndon Johnson in the wake of riots in several large cities, concluded that the news media generally “failed to report adequately on the causes and consequences of civil disorders and on the underlying problems of race relations.” Recommendations in the report included recruiting and training more Black reporters.
When he was hired, WSB managers told Jelks they hired him in part because the station needed a Black reporter but insisted he would not solely cover news impacting the Black community. In addition to his reporting role, Jelks got training on writing for television news.
Said Jelks about how he was treated when he joined the station, “I didn’t complain about it because I didn’t have any control over it.” During an interview in 2022, Jelks said, “Once (WSB) took that opportunity of going with someone green like me, someone who had never been inside a television station, I think perhaps that helped with the other stations.”
The significance of his role was not lost on Jelks. He arrived at work before other reporters to familiarize himself with the day’s top stories in the newspaper.
Said Jelks, “You were watched a lot by the general public. There were people out there who didn’t wish us well at all and hoping we would make all kinds of mistakes.”
As Atlanta was making plans for what became MARTA, Jelks traveled and reported on mass transit in other large cities. Jelks also interviewed candidate Jimmy Carter during his run for governor in 1970. One of his most notable assignments was interviewing Ku Klux Klan leaders before a rally at Stone Mountain.
Following his departure from WSB-TV, and despite offers to become an anchor at the station and entreaties to report for NBC News, Jelks returned to his roots and first love, radio, and created an AM station highlighting historically Black colleges and universities, and helped run a newspaper serving local HBCUs in the Atlanta University Center, The AUC Digest.
Soon after Jelks’ hiring, other Atlanta news outlets followed suit and began hiring Black reporters. The Atlanta Journal hired its first Black reporter, Harmon Perry, in 1968. Subsequent hirings in the wake of Jelks include Billye Suber Aaron, Jocelyn Dorsey, Emmanuel Hall, Felicia Jeter and Ron Sailor Sr. Each became familiar faces across Atlanta’s television screens in the years following Jelks.
In a tribute video for Jelks posted by the Atlanta Press Club, Jocelyn Dorsey, former WSB director of editorials and public affairs said, “He really shined the light on the importance of education and I think in many ways changed the landscape of race relations in Atlanta and certainly in Georgia by his reporting.”
In 2022, Jelks was inducted into the Atlanta Press Club Hall of Fame. They issued a statement on his passing saying, “The Atlanta Press Club is deeply saddened by the passing of Lorenzo ‘Lo’ Jelks,” the organization said in a statement after his death. “His legacy will live on with the 2023 Lorenzo ‘Lo’ Jelks Communications and Marketing Internship sponsored by the Georgia Power Foundation.”
Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp also paid tribute and posted a statement on Twitter saying, “As someone who made history for our state, he paved the way for other African Americans in media during a pivotal time. As we pray for his loved ones, we’re also remembering his valued contributions.”
Former WSB TV news anchor Monia Kauffman Pearson, who worked at the station for 37 years said, “He opened the door for us. He’s my hero.” Citing his modesty about his impact, Pearson said, “He made history and he would rather let it become a footnote instead of being a headline.”
Jelks’ hometown paper, now called The Tampa Bay Times, captured the significance of the moment as it reported in its June 5, 1967 edition about his hiring at WSB-TV saying, “He will become the first Negro TV newsman in Atlanta.”
In his honor, a scholarship has been created at Clark Atlanta University in memory of former WSB-TV reporter and Atlanta’s first Black TV reporter Lorenzo “Lo” Jelks.
The family announced they will have a viewing scheduled for March 10 from 4-8 p.m. at Willie A. Watkins Funeral Home. A homegoing service is scheduled for March 11 at 11 a.m. at Antioch Baptist Church North.
In lieu of flowers, the family is asking for donations to the Lo Jelks Broadcast Journalism Endowed Scholarship at Clark Atlanta University.