Minneapolis firefighter Alex Jackson put his career on the line back in 1994 when he led a lawsuit pushing for better promotional opportunities for black firefighters.

That groundbreaking work paid off Monday when Jackson was nominated to be the city's next fire chief.

"I'm deeply honored," the 27-year department veteran said.

His promotion represents the culmination of a 40-year battle first to racially integrate the department, and then ensure promotional opportunities for firefighters of color.

"What a surprise! That's historical, and well deserved," said activist Ron Edwards, who has been involved with department integration efforts for decades.

Self-effacing at work, Jackson off the job sought the spotlight as a stand-up comedian in clubs and on cruise ships, initially prodded by his truck-mates at Station 6. One, former chief Rocco Forte, said: "Alex is a very good firefighter. He knows what he's doing."

Jackson got involved in the 1994 litigation as head of the black firefighters association. The same year, he testified against the reappointment of the then-chief, charging that black firefighters were confined to the lower ranks.

Bucking the system led to changes, especially under Forte, who said he tried to level the playing field for promotions, making more widely available the training and class-work preparation that previously were shared largely through word of mouth among a largely white department. Jackson got seasoning in administration under Forte, Edwards said.

"Alex did the work himself," given that opportunity to prepare himself, Forte said.

The nomination is the second groundbreaking appointment Mayor R.T. Rybak made in his three picks for chief. The first, Bonnie Bleskachek, was the first woman to run the department, but after two years agreed to a demotion after sparking a welter of lawsuits that cost the city hundreds of thousands of dollars. Rybak's next appointee, James Clack, settled the department down, but left to head the Baltimore department last winter.

Rybak praised Jackson for "outstanding administrative and operating experience." Like Clack, he'll provide low-key leadership, Forte said.

Edwards agreed. "He had an ability to defuse a lot of situations. I saw him use it at times," he said. "Everybody makes enemies, but Alex doesn't make a lot of enemies. He was firm, but he treated people with dignity."

The nomination was announced by Rybak shortly after the Star Tribune requested he release the names of three finalists, as required by law. His office said then that he was expected to make a decision among the finalists within the next several days, and might re-interview some of them. The other finalists included Assistant Chief of Operations John Fruetel and Deputy Chief of Personnel Jean Kidd.

The nomination goes first to the city's Executive Committee, and if approved there goes next to the City Council committee handling public safety.

Don Samuels, who chairs that committee, said his spot checks with firefighters found Jackson carried authority among them but also was regarded with "deep respect and affinity."

"He called the department to account, and he hasn't paid a political price," Samuels said of Jackson's efforts on behalf of minority firefighters. Steve Brandt • 612-673-4438