Advocating in column inches: Journalism alum is a voice for social justice

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When Derrick Jackson was 10 years old, he went to visit his grandparents in DeKalb, Mississippi. He remembers one trip with his grandfather into town, where young Jackson wanted to buy some comic books and an ice cream cone from the local drug store. When he ordered his dessert, Jackson, who is Black, recalled that the white girl working the register looked petrified. A white man poked his head out from the back and said, “He’s not from around here. Just give him the ice cream cone.”

When Jackson returned to their car, his grandfather asked where he’d bought the comic books. Jackson told him.

“He said, ‘Oh. You know that’s the white folks’ drug store.’ This was not all that long after Emmet Till was murdered,” Jackson recalled. “He got all quiet and a soft smile came to his face. He said one word. He said, ‘Good.’”

Young Jackson felt validated in that moment, like he could go anywhere and had the right to do so. When he looks back, he says, his long career in journalism started in that truck.

“My feeling of saying what was on my mind and not being afraid to put it on paper, I really attribute it to that moment,” Jackson said.

Since then, Jackson has gone so many places. A self-described recovering sports writer and a former columnist for the Boston Globe, Jackson is also a Pulitzer Prize nominee; the author of two awardwinning books; and has become a passionate advocate for public health, the environment, and social justice.

Milwaukee origins

Jackson’s parents always expected him to go to college, but they weren’t picky about where. So, Jackson, a product of Milwaukee Public Schools, headed to the university in his backyard. He majored in mass communication (now journalism, advertising, and media studies) at UWM, a love he discovered while writing for his school newspapers in middle and high school.

But Jackson didn’t wait until graduation to secure a job. Within the first month of starting classes, he was offered a position covering high school sports for the Milwaukee Journal.

“On top of that, I was both a reporter and a photographer at the Milwaukee Courier, and at the same time, I became an apprentice photographer at the Associated Press. I worked under the sports photographer for the Wisconsin AP,” Jackson said.

There, he covered Green Bay Packers games with his mentor, and occasionally covered the Brewers and the Bucks – including the Bucks’ 1974 championship series against the Celtics.

Inside of the classroom, Jackson counted himself lucky to work with the faculty in the mass communication department, most of whom were industry professionals themselves.

“They have instant credibility with you as a student. Everybody cared about their craft,” he recalled. “No one was mailing it in. No one was sleepwalking through their own past glories. They were teaching the best in journalism.”

After graduating in 1974, Jackson spent two years covering sports for the Kansas City Star before moving to New York to join Newsday. There, he wrote about some of the city’s most notorious events at the time, including Bernard Goetz’s shooting of four Black youths on a subway.

Jackson also covered the 1988 presidential campaign of Michael Dukakis. The more time he spent on the campaign trail, the more he found himself wishing he could express his own opinions on the issues. When he and his wife, Dr. Michelle Holmes, moved back to her hometown of Boston, Jackson joined the Boston Globe as a columnist, where he spent the rest of his career before taking a buyout in 2015.

In his opinion

To be a good columnist, it’s not enough to just have an opinion.

“I had a tremendous mentor, the late Les Payne,” Jackson said. “He always told me that a column is the subject of a made-up mind, but you can only make up your mind when you report, gather your facts, and marshal your facts. Even if someone disagrees with your point of view, they have to wrestle with your facts.”

The advice worked; Jackson has been routinely recognized for his work and was even nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in 2001.

“That was fun. It was kind of like making it to the Super Bowl and getting wiped out – but I did get to the Super Bowl,” he joked.

But it’s the awards from the National Association of Black Journalists that mean the most, he added. They are his peers in an industry that has not always welcomed non-white points of view. He most recently won the Scripps Howard Award in April for his coverage on the disparities surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic. His work, written for the Union of Concerned Scientists and, covered the “bald-faced racism involved in the decisions of governors, particularly in the South, of banning mask mandates, demanding people go back to work regardless of the public health situation,” Jackson said. “It feels that good that other people see me as a voice for those who are being harmed or oppressed or discriminated against.”


Jackson’s recent work has focused on public health and the pandemic, but historically, he has advocated for athletes, since he spent so many years on sports desks.

“I started (a column) that still lives on at ESPN’s The Undefeated. I started doing the graduation rates of teams in March Madness basketball and football bowl games. I did so because, back when I started it, the graduation rate … of the top teams were like an inverse proportion to their win rates,” Jackson said.

Those columns were cited in The Wall Street Journal when he began them, and were incorporated into the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics’ major report on inequity in sports teams. “I’m really pleased that that issue is important to people – what I would call the hypocrisy of the so-called student athlete model,” Jackson added.

And in professional sports, he couldn’t help but notice how announcers and broadcasters praised the mental acuity of white athletes but tended to ignore that when they talked about the physicality of Black athletes.

“I was told … that one set of those columns on sports language made it into the preparation package of Super Bowl announcers one year. I feel good about having an effect – in many situations, sports language did get better,” Jackson said. “The reason I’ve done those pieces is because sports, for better or for worse, is probably the single most visible way that white America sees Black men. If they are viewed as less smart than white athletes, that maintains a cascade of effects that results in a disproportionate number of white athletes being picked as coaches and general managers.”

He’s also passionate about public health and environmental causes. Jackson is the coauthor of two books covering The Puffin Plan, a project to restore the seabirds to the coast of Maine. In May, his book “The Puffin Plan” published by Tumblehome Books received the first-place Gold Award for Teen Nonfiction in the Independent Book Publisher’s Association’s Benjamin Franklin Awards.

Unconventional life

Jackson knows he’s led a remarkable life. He’s traveled, met extraordinary people, and enjoyed a national pulpit for most of his career. He likes birding with his wife and has followed the Puffin Project closely for years. He is a respected journalist who has used his position to be an advocate for others.

He currently writes for organizations like the Union of Concerned Scientists,, and The Undefeated. He also serves as a diversity consultant, and his work is lauded and referenced by others. Jackson doesn’t take it for granted – but he hopes that America soon will.

“I’ve been able to get out of the books and do writing in ways and other pursuits that people are surprised to see a Black man doing,” he said. “I just hope that this country can become a place where, if you want to fight the traditional fights, that’s fine; and if you want to be out of the box, that’s fine too. No one should be surprised.”

By Sarah Vickery, College of Letters & Science