Dickson was the son of Robert and Mary Rachael Dickson. His father, a cotton mill worker, died from pneumonia in 1938 and his mother brought him and his four siblings to Birmingham in 1939 to live with an older sister's family. Dickson attended 61st Street Elementary School, which merged into Robinson Elementary School. In high school he worked a large paper route and was popular as a leader as well as a fighter. He graduated from Fairfield Industrial High School in 1950 and found work as a welder at Vulcan Furniture Manufacturing before he was drafted into the U.S. Army in June 1953. He was assigned to Fort Jackson in South Carolina and Camp Rucker in Dale County, but was not deployed thanks to the Korean Armistice Agreement signed that year.
After his discharge in 1955, Dickson took a job in the kitchen at Lloyd Noland Hospital. At his mother's insistence, he enrolled at Miles College in the fall, and completed a bachelor of arts in sociology. He was elected president of the Student Government Association, registered to vote for the first time, and assisted with efforts to register other African-Americans despite numerous arbitrary obstacles. He also joined with Jesse Walker in protesting in downtown Birmingham until Miles' president William A. Bell, urged them to stop because it was interfering with the college's ability to raise funds from the white community.
In the 1960s, Dickson was employed by A. G. Gaston's Booker T. Washington Insurance Company as an agent. He attended mass meetings at Bethel Baptist Church and participated in planned boycotts and demonstrations leading up to the "Birmingham Campaign". He was one of the marchers arrested with Fred Shuttlesworth for "parading without a permit" on 5th Avenue North in 1962. Subsequently, Dickson faced pressure not to threaten his employment by risking more arrests. He also served with the Urban League in Birmingham and helped direct a demonstration project at Miles College to train African Americans for newly-desegregated careers.
In 1970 Dickson enrolled at Howard University Law School, completing his juris doctorate in 1973. He returned to Alabama and opened his own real estate and construction company. He was president of the Alabama Republican Council and was appointed to the position of "Assistant of Minority Affairs" in Governor Guy Hunt's administration.
Dickson died in July 2018.
- Huntley, Horace and John W. McKerley, eds. (2009) Foot Soldiers for Democracy: The Men, Women, and Children of the Birmingham Civil Rights Movement. Champaign, Illinois: University of Illinois Press ISBN 9780252076688
- "Joe Dickson, Civil Rights activist, Owner of the Birmingham World newspaper, dies at 85." (July 23, 2018) The Birmingham Times