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McGill and Patterson: Journalists for Justice

ISSUE:  Autumn 2003

In 1960, when Ralph McGill turned 62 and had been editor in chief of the Atlanta Constitution since 1942, and a daily columnist dealing with political, social and economic matters since 1938, he was promoted to publisher. As his friend Harold Martin wrote in a biography: McGill “knew nothing . . .of such matters as the cost of newsprint, the durability of delivery trucks, advertising linage, circulation revenue.” The promotion meant only that McGill would not have to retire at 65, as he would have as editor. It also meant Eugene Patterson would take over the editorial page, overseeing a staff of three writers and a cartoonist and writing a daily signed column for the page.(McGill’s was on page one.) Patterson was a former United Press reporter and editor. At 36 he was a full generation younger than McGill, but they had become close friends, real pals, during Patterson’s four years as executive editor of the Constitution and its afternoon sister, the Atlanta Journal. Like McGill, he was, by Southern journalistic standards, liberal on the issue of that day and place, civil rights. For the next eight-plus years, they were a unique team. Daily turning out columns that, when they dealt with race or politics, made them and their paper an object of scorn in the segregationist community and, particularly, in the white supremacy community.

That was true in Georgia, where the paper had statewide circulation; it was true in bordering states, where the paper had some circulation; and it was true in the other Southern states, where it had no circulation, but was often quoted and damned on the editorial pages of papers in places like Jackson, Mississippi, for example. Patterson and McGill were called many names and enemies of “our way of life.” They also endured telephone curses and threatening vandalism at office and home. Georgia politicians in almost every small rural county had long denounced “Rastus McGill” and “them lying Atlanta newspapers.” Now McGill was joined by a formidable comrade in arms. The campaign against the status quo was doubled.

Patterson was a native of one of those small south Georgia counties where white racism was everywhere palpable. He grew up on a small farm. Went to college at the state university, then into the Army. He became a decorated platoon leader for George Patton, which was one if not the most shaping experience of his pre-newspaper life. It accelerated his maturation. He was a peer of the McGill generation, running things in the newspapers as elsewhere in the 1950s and 1960s. He was at ease and at home with it. The war also revealed to himself that he was brave, and a commanding authority not only to men in khaki his age but older ones. That carried over to his newspaper days. I can attest to that. I was an editorial writer and later Washington columnist for the Constitution in those decades. I am just a few years Patterson’s junior, but I and other young staff members there then and those who were as old as or older than Patterson accepted his decisions and orders without question or resentment, even when we disagreed.

Jack Tarver, the chief executive of the Atlanta Journal and Constitution at the time, likened the combination of McGill and Patterson to Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. And this was in a league where only a very few lineups included even one slugger.

Some critics on the left disputed that McGill and Patterson were sluggers. They said, often, that McGill had always been a “gradualist,” and Patterson turned out to be more of the same. They weren’t hitting the ball out of the park. They were hitting singles and doubles, while white racists were inflicting the most horrible physical, psychological and economic pain on blacks.

There’s something to that, certainly in the very early 1960s, but singles hitters win ball games, too, if they are consistent enough, just not as quickly and dramatically. That is especially true if they are more concerned about winning the game than they are about the adrenaline rush and fan applause that hitting one out of the park produces. And just for the record, there were not even a whole lot of singles hitters among the rest of the pundits of the region then. Patterson, McGill and the Constitution editorials on race relations were to the left of most if not all of their Southern counterparts.

Anyone paying close attention to the racial turmoil of the South in the nine years Patterson was writing some 3,200 columns knew that you could only get so far ahead of a Southern readership and expect to be convincing and followed. That’s not so much gradualism as it is realism. Or as Robert Penn Warren put it in the mid-’50s, contemplating the future of race relations in the South, “Gradualism is all you’ll get. History, like nature, knows no jumps. Except maybe backwards.”

I don’t think it was just his gradualism and/or realism that kept Patterson from winning the applause from some liberals, in and out of the region. I think it was part that and part something else. He rejected the criticism many Northern liberals made of the white South because he believed that many white racists were as much victims of a social system they had no control over as were the black targets of their hostility. Joe Cumming, an Atlanta-based Newsweek correspondent in those times, must have had that in mind when he described Patterson as “a liberal on race with compassion for the white agony.”

Not only did Patterson reject liberal criticism; he sometimes lumped Northern liberals and racist Southerners together. In one of his early editorial page columns, Patterson wrote from the 1960 Democratic National Convention: “The floor fight on civil rights was ugly on its surface. . . . And it was treated dishonestly by inarticulate Southerner and glib liberal alike. . . . For a responsible political party to advocate solemnly that every school start the desegregation process by the arbitrary date of 1963, neatly meeting the anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, is so flip an approach to a massive problem that one questions not the party’s wisdom but its honesty.

“And to see the governor of Mississippi shout that 99 percent of the whites and Negroes of his state are happy with things as they are . . . is to judge him by the same measurement.”

One hundred and twenty-two of Patterson’s columns have been collected and published as The Changing South of Gene Patterson: Journalism and Civil Rights, 1960—1968, edited by Roy Peter Clark and Raymond Arsenault and published by the University of Florida Press. Clark is senior scholar at the Poynter Institute, which conducts seminars for “journalists, future journalists and teachers of journalism.” Arsenault is the John Hope Franklin Professor of History at the University of South Florida.

The columns reveal Patterson again and again sympathizing with his fellow white Southerners in general, even as some of them were behaving very badly in the civil rights arena. Here he is on the screaming, egg-throwing protesters in New Orleans at a newly desegregated school: “They are the flotsam left on the beach by a tide that went out without warning. Yet this driftwood of the South is being pictured as the timber of Louisiana. . . . One prediction: No Georgian of our acquaintance will direct abuse at a first-grade child. . . . It wouldn’t have happened in Louisana either if the people had been better led.” He surely knew that there was more flotsam than timber in many parts of the South.

And again: “Too many Americans in the North and West have judged Southerners by the activities of leaders who continue to speak, but not for the people.” Some of “the people” did want the race demagogues speaking for them, and did not just follow them, but urged them on.

Patterson obviously believed that if journalism in the South could make the political and other influential community leaders even a little braver, that would be good for “Negroes”—and also for those whites who were intimidated by Southern Klan-types only too eager to hold blacks down and back by every means possible.

Here he is during the desegregation of the University of Georgia, which had prompted a riot on the Athens campus: “A nation appalled by the performance of [Governor Orval] Faubus in Arkansas and [Governor Jimmie] Davis in Louisiana discovered [Ernest] Vandiver of Georgia to be a Southern governor who obeys the law and puts the education of the young ahead of an old politics when it wears out. . . .

“And in the hours of crisis, when men had to stand forward for Georgia or stand back in trembling, two leaders in particular stood firmly, regardless of political risk, to do what had to be done to preserve education. They were [state] Sen. Carl Sanders of Augusta and [state] Rep. Frank Twitty of Camilla. Let the voters of the state mark this by their names. They had guts when it took guts to have guts.”

It may seem ridiculous to contend today that refusing to junk the state’s entire public education system rather than accept token integration took courage or intelligence back then, but at that time and place there were many common people and powerful people, too, who together were ready, willing and able to do just that.

What got to critics of the Patterson approach to improving race relations were such columns as “We’re Weary of Civil Rights Bills”: “The law has served its valuable purpose as the starter on the engine of racial progress. But the engine must run on the sustained power of voluntary decisions of the hearts of people. Slowly but with gathering sureness that power is taking hold.” Voluntary was a four-letter word to many in those days, on both sides of the issue.

Patterson acknowledged that the civil rights legislation President John Kennedy was known to be preparing, with its ban on discrimination in places of public accommodation, “might indeed help and silently be welcomed by white managements in places like Mississippi, where, the managers explain, they can’t move unless they are forced . . .but . . . Atlanta needs no new laws.”

The first part of that was undoubtedly true, but the second part, not quite. Though there had been some progress in Atlanta in the previous two years, there were many holdouts by “white” businesses. Furthermore, outside of Atlanta many places in Georgia were just like places in Mississippi. A notable political reminder of that was the rise of Lester Maddox.

Maddox owned a popular Atlanta cafeteria, for whites only. He kept a supply of ax handles on the premises for his customers to use if there were to be a sit-in by demonstrators. His newspaper ads spoke more of defiance to blacks and civil rights than of his menu. His following was growing. When the Civil Rights Act became law in 1964, Maddox closed down his business, after brandishing a pistol at black students who came to test the law, and began running for governor.

I believe Patterson’s cheerleading of ordinary white Georgians and the state’s white political and business leaders was a way not only of spurring them in his direction but a sort of incantation meant to charm his readers and reassure himself that what he foresaw for his state was really possible. He had to keep reassuring himself that real and lasting progress was being made on the civil rights front when there were still ugly events transpiring all across the South, including Georgia, including Atlanta. For example, Alabama Governor George Wallace and Mississippi Governor Ross Barnett spoke at an outdoor rally in Atlanta. Two blacks were beaten. “Whites had cornered the Negroes against a fence. They did not strike simply with their fists,” Patterson wrote. “They swung metal folding chairs, again and again, with crushing force against the bodies and heads of their quarry. . . . There are a few mean men in any society, of course, who can be reached only by the police, and convinced only by the chain gang. . . . But what of those who are not basically brutal, yet who are swept along, when herd leaders inflame, until lesser men’s passions sway their own humane code?”

In the next gubernatorial race in 1966, after two consecutive responsible and fair governors, Vandiver and former State Senator Sanders, both praised by Patterson during the University of Georgia crisis, the choice came down to Maddox, an urban version of the prototypical racist demagogue so familiar in Southern literature and in reality, or a more polished, aristocratic but more segregationist Republican, Congressman Howard “Bo” Callaway.

Patterson had denounced Maddox for “the foulness and fanaticism of his racism” in the Democratic primary. Later an anguished Patterson wrote a column explaining, to a young child’s (I presume his daughter’s) question, why, despite his distaste for Maddox, he could not support the Republican:

“Mr. Callaway and I hold fundamentally different views about the needs of Negroes, school children, the elderly, working men and many, many others. . . . Because he is a strong man, his election might fasten his old idea[s] anew on Georgia for countless years to come, with the supporters of a defeated Maddox returning to Mr. Callaway and reinforcing his numbers. I am not sure when we could work our way back to . . .the moderate and progressive government you have known in your lifetime under Governors Vandiver and Sanders.”

In that column, he also wrote, “I’d rather we go back to . . . plowing with a mule than see Georgia solicit cheap industries by deliberately keeping its workers poor.” Patterson was literally a Chamber of Commerce liberal; he served on the board of the Atlanta Chamber of Commerce, 1963—1966. But I like to think his language in occasional columns like that revealed the heart of a populist dragon-slayer inside his establishment armor.

As often as he wrote that whites were better than they thought they were, Patterson wrote for his largely white readership that blacks were better than whites thought blacks were. Typical were an obituary column about A.T. Walden, a black Atlanta lawyer and early fighter for voting rights, in which he stressed his humanity, dignity and patriotism, as well as his professionalism; and an interview with a black high school teacher expressing her support for integration, her quiet self-confidence and her all-too-human concern about an unknown future. He captured her in a quote: “I am a good English teacher, but when I wonder what the white children will think of me, I feel very timid.”

He wrote often of his fellow Atlantan, Martin Luther King, Jr. , usually but not always admiringly. On Dr. King’s death he wrote a sad, laudatory front page editorial in which he called on whites to cease “the poisonous politics of hatred that turns sick minds to murder. . . . Let the white man say, No more of this ever and put an end to it—if not for the Negro, for the sake of his own immortal soul.”

Probably the best column in this collection dealt with King’s very public funeral service in Ebenezer Baptist Church. He wrote, “TV doesn’t catch it at all. On the contrary I think it symbolizes what the trouble is. You look at [the black mourners] from a distance. They are just a picture then. It gives you the illusion of knowing them. You do not know them until you join them, and look them in the face, and white Americans have not done that yet. . . .

“You have to be there in the pews . . . to know the full truth—that we whites have committed the monstrous wrong of thrusting away a people we do not even know, and hurting them out of fear born of our ignorance. . . .

“We have treated them as if they were somehow dangerous—these loyal, warm, large-hearted vulnerable neighbors who have asked so little of America, and received so much less. The demagogues have slandered them until we have somehow blinded ourselves to the humble gift of friendship they have been offering.”

Patterson resigned from the Constitution a few months later, after the last of many disputes with his boss, Jack Tarver, over the editorial page. Tarver thought some of the writers Patterson hired were too antibusiness. A few months later, McGill died. Patterson ended up as chief executive officer of the corporation that owned the St. Petersburg Times.(The Poynter Institute is a creation of the corporation.) Today he is retired, and a widower, living in St. Petersburg.

If the King funeral column, a definite home run, was the best, my own two favorites show the essence of Gene Patterson and his “Changing South” in different perspectives.

One dealt with Herbert Biles, a white correctional officer at the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary. He was deputized as a federal marshal to protect James Meredith during the deadly rioting when he was admitted to the University of Mississippi.

Biles won the Silver Star as a member Patterson’s platoon in Europe during World War II. At Ole Miss he was wounded. Later, he told Patterson, “It was worse than anything we saw in the war. During the war you could shoot back. . . . Being born and bred a Georgian, I might have felt out of place there if I had thought of it as something I was doing only for Meredith.

“But the way I looked at it, I felt I was doing more for those Mississippi students than I was for Meredith. I felt like, by standing there, that I was saving them from themselves.”

I’m sure Patterson must have thought the same sort of thing about himself on many occasions. He hated to shoot back, too, and only in extremis did he.

The other column dealt with Lillian Smith, the novelist. She was born in Florida and settled in Georgia. She was very active in the small liberal wing of the civil rights movement there from early on. She and her circle of friends revealed in conversations, fiction and journalism a certain resentment of the moderate (to them) newspapermen of the region, such as McGill and Hodding Carter of Mississippi, and novelists like William Faulkner and Robert Penn Warren, who were being celebrated by national magazines and newspapers as “the voice of the South,” while truly liberal Southern voices like hers were not.

Patterson visited her on her death bed in the hospital. The day after she died, he wrote: “Lillian Smith was a beautiful woman— sensitive, fragile, gifted. . . . She tried to tell truths of value about the South, in her writing, and Southerners tried to break her spirit. . . .

“The novel “Strange Fruit,” in 1944, established her as a writer of top rank and extraordinary courage. Its racial theme also brought down upon her a storm of rage in the South. Never shaken, she wrote with eloquence, and worked untiringly for civil rights, through years when she was not simply the focus of controversy but of hatred. . . .

“She was an artist. . . . Her art, being real, simply required of her that she address herself to the reality of the conflict around her, and in the South that happened to be race. Because she was an artist, she told the truth.”

He headlined the column with “Lillian Smith, Southerner.”


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