After the death of his father, George Washington Head, in 1913, his mother, the former Elizabeth Horton of Pleasant Ridge in Greene County, brought the family to live close to her relatives in Birmingham's Norwood neighborhood.
James attended Barker Elementary School and the Paul Hayne School, but dropped out after his first year to support the family by delivering newspapers and mowing yards. He graduated to taking orders for a wholesale drug company and keeping time slips at a foundry. By 18 he was working in sales for Library Bureau, a New Orleans, Louisiana-based manufacturer of library supplies and furnishings. He worked briefly at their main office in New Orleans before returning to Birmingham in 1926 to start his own retail distribution company. His company won the contract to supply furnishings to the new Birmingham Public Library built in 1927 and eventually furnished most of the libraries in the state. He sold the company to Scholar Craft Products in 1996.
Head used his influence as a business leader to argue primarily for improvements to public education and to defuse racial animosity. He helped found the Alabama chapter of the National Conference of Christians and Jews in 1928. He served as a deacon and trustee for Southside Baptist Church and on the board of trustees of Howard College. He co-chaired campaigns to raise funds to construct Holy Family Hospital in Ensley and Baptist Medical Center Montclair, and to relocate Howard College from East Lake to Shades Valley.
The Young Men’s Business Club honored him as their "Man of the Year" in 1950. He has served as president of the Birmingham Chamber of Commerce and the Birmingham Rotary Club. He also founded the Jefferson County Good Neighbors Committee. Head led the most progressive wing of the Chamber of Commerce and chaired the Committee of 100 which was charged with recruiting new industry to the city.
Head was inducted into the Alabama Business Hall of Fame in 2001, into the Alabama Academy of Honor in 2002, and into the Birmingham Business Hall of Fame in 2005. The NCCJ's Lifetime Achievement Award is named in his honor.
In 1961 Head was appointed to the Alabama Advisory Committee to the Civil Rights Commission. On the basis of its economic impact, he challenged segregation as a detriment to the development of the city. He opposed the closing of public parks in 1961 and co-authored the "Plea for Courage and Common Sense" that voiced the business moderates' viewpoint on avoiding negative press for the city. The plea was summarily rejected by the Birmingham City Commission. As the lines of the Civil Rights Movement were drawn, Head was frequently called as a mediator who could carry messages across the gap and organize meetings, sometimes conducted in secret, between accommodationist parties from both sides.
Head was among the activists who promoted the Birmingham Plan to remove Bull Connor from power by changing the form of government to a Mayor and Council. His efforts at defusing tensions weren't enough, however, to overcome the crisis that rocked the city when Martin Luther King, Jr and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference joined Fred Shuttlesworth and his Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights in a campaign of public demonstrations in the Spring of 1963.
- McWhorter, Diane (2001) Carry Me Home: Birmingham, Alabama, The Climactic Battle of the Civil Rights Revolution. New York, New York: Simon and Schuster. ISBN 0743226488
- Spencer, Thomas (December 22, 2010) "James A. Head, businessman, advocate for racial equality, dies at 106." Birmingham News
- James A. Head, Sr at the Alabama Academy of Honor