William H. Dilday Jr., a Boston TV executive who moved to Jackson, Miss., in 1972 to manage the city’s NBC affiliate, becoming the country’s first Black person to run a commercial television station, died on July 27 in Newton, Mass. He was 85.
His daughter Kenya Dilday said that he died at a hospital from complications after a fall.
Mr. Dilday was 34, with a mere three years experience in the TV business, when he got a call from a nonprofit organization in Jackson, asking if he would be interested in taking over at WLBT, Mississippi’s largest station.
The inquiry came after eight years of litigation by the United Church of Christ and a group of Black citizens against the station, which was owned by a local insurance company. Like many TV stations in the Jim Crow-era South, WLBT had given scant coverage to the civil rights movement, or to the lives and concerns of Black Mississippians in general.
It refused to use courtesy titles when interviewing Black people, and once cut off a segment with Thurgood Marshall, replacing it with a sign reading, “Sorry — Cable Trouble.”
The church and its coalition argued that the station’s license required it to give equal coverage to all citizens, and in 1969 the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, in a decision written by the future chief justice Warren E. Burger, ruled in their favor.
Recognizing that the station was among the few sources of news in southern Mississippi, Judge Burger ordered the license transferred to a nonprofit organization, Communications Improvement Inc., whose leadership included members of the church. After a few years under an interim manager, the organization called Mr. Dilday.
A Boston native whose experience in the South was limited to a few trips to see family in North Carolina, he was at first wary of moving. But ultimately he couldn’t resist the challenge, and in May 1972 he loaded up his car and headed south.
Mr. Dilday began making changes almost immediately. He hired a Black woman, Dorothy Gibbs, to create an integrated children’s show, “Our Playmates.” Within his first year he increased Black employment at the station to 35 percent from 15 percent, including as anchors, camera operators and news editors.
He created an investigative series, “Probe,” that in 1976 won a Peabody award for a series on political corruption in the state.
He made other bold programming decisions. Against the urging of local and national civil rights groups, he sent a reporter to cover a rally by the white supremacist National States’ Rights Party, arguing that the public needed to hear its hateful speech first hand.
“We got a lot of flak” for covering the rally, Mr. Dilday told Kay Mills, the author of “Changing Channels: The Civil Rights Case that Transformed Television” (2004). “But if it happened tomorrow, I’d do it again.”
In 1980, he refused to air a nationally broadcast mini-series, “Beulah Land,” a “Gone With the Wind”-style period drama featuring gallant slave owners and happily enslaved Black people. Angry letters poured in, but Mr. Dilday stood firm.
Mr. Dilday did all this while making money: In 1977 the station earned a $500,000 profit off $3.7 million in revenue, a hefty return that would have been even heftier if the station didn’t have to pay high rental fees to the previous owners for use of the studio and equipment.
His arrival was not without tension. The station received violent, threatening phone calls when it announced Mr. Dilday’s hiring, and again any time he went on air to editorialize on issues like political corruption and budget cuts — perhaps less because of what he said than because he was a Black man saying it.
He faced similar opposition from some white employees, at least at first. When he announced that he was promoting a Black man, Tom Alexander, to assistant production manager, the production department threatened to quit en masse.
“In a few minutes, three resignations were turned in,” he told Ms. Mills. “The funny thing is that two of those men who resigned worked a different shift, and wouldn’t have even been around Tom.”
William Horace Dilday Jr. was born on Sept. 14, 1937, in Boston. His father was a Pullman porter and his mother, Alease (Scott) Dilday, a homemaker. He graduated from Boston University with a degree in business administration in 1960 and after two years in the Army went to work in the personnel department at I.B.M.
He became director of personnel at WHDH in Boston in 1969.
He married Maxine Wiggins in 1966. Along with his daughter, his wife survives him, as do another daughter, Erika Dilday; his son, Scott Sparrow; and four grandchildren.
After settling into his position in Jackson, he joined a group of mostly Black investors in 1973 to buy a TV station in St. Croix, part of the U.S. Virgin Islands, making it the first Black-owned commercial station in the country.
He was a founding member of the National Association of Black Journalists, created in 1975, and from 1978 to 1979 he served as president of the Jackson Urban League, a civil rights and service organization.
Mr. Dilday moved from WLBT to Jackson’s CBS affiliate, WJTV, in 1985, where he stayed as station manager until retiring in 2000. He later worked as an adviser to several Jackson-area politicians, including Rep. Bennie Thompson, a close friend.
“William Dilday was an inspirational leader for the media, and an important figure in Jackson, Miss., and the wider news media,” Rep. Thompson said in a statement. “His tireless work made a lasting impact on the media.”