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The Sage of Atlanta

ISSUE:  Summer 1999
Ralph McGill: A Biography. By Barbara Barksdale Clowse, Mercer University Press. $29.95.

Thank the gods for Ralph McGill, the great editor of The Atlanta Constitution. When the editor of the this journal handed me this book for review, the thoughts came faster than I could put them down.

In his 48-year term as a newspaperman, and more than three decades as editor and publisher, McGill fought injustice and intolerance under the killing pace that few laymen and ladies understood: a seven-day-a-week column and a ton of editorials.

He had guts, even when he and his family were under police guard at night. He gave it right back to the Kue Clucks when they called, always anonymously. He had an everlasting feeling for the underdog. He had a restless urge to be on the ground interviewing, whether it was in Indonesia or South Georgia. He had tremendous curiosity. He could write. And he was fast. Listen to Celestine Sibley, longtime Constitution reporter and columnist:

“After staff meetings came the writing, with McGill turning toward his typewriter in the swivel chair which he rides with the sort of itchy restlessness of a farm boy traveling bareback on a mule, he would knock out six or eight editorials and his column with a speed which no member of his staff has ever approached.”

Barbara Barksdale Clowse, 61, an independent historian and author who is an Atlanta native, has written a good and thorough book—fine reading for those who favor courage and decency. She makes an effort not to whitewash. Critics said, for example, that McGill was often undisciplined and sometimes inconsistent. True. But she thrills with the details that show you his greatest quality of all: his mighty heart.

McGill’s working years, 1921—1969, were those in which editorials meant quite a bit in the hinterland. Politicians good and bad privately disparaged but respected them. As Rudy Olgiati, the indomitable mayor of Chattanooga, once confided, “They can throw you on 50,000 doorsteps every morning.”

Conversely, the tiny few newspapers that stayed with the Supreme Court all the way, from the 1954 school desegregation decision on, needed all the respect they could get. By tiny few I mean you could count them, incredibly, on half the fingers of one hand, among metropolitan dailies.

When Brown v. Board of Education came down, McGill was in Europe. The Constitution editorial came some days later. It was moderate. He knew, and whatever Ms. Clowse says, he was right, that to get too far ahead of the audience was death. He called for desegregation, rather than integration of the races. In 17 years dealing editorially with the crisis, I never used the word integration.

In addition, McGill had to deal with corporate uncertainty. The owners of many Southern papers would like to have spoken out but were in fear of their survival. Ms. Clowse throws light on factors that kept McGill all but silent on race for periods during 1956—59, amounting to approximately two years. The Constitution was in continual financial trouble. Through the Howell and the Cox ownerships, he also had to cope with constant differences with executives such as General Manager George Biggers, whom the author terms a Kentucky segregationist.

But when they cut him loose, he soared. A Pulitzer Prize in 1959, an honorary degree from Harvard and 16 other universities and many other honors. A final tribute from the revered Dr. Benjamin Mays, Atlanta educator, was that McGill “was named. . .as having done more than any other writer to get Atlanta and the South to accept federal decrees and congressional legislation in the interest of justice and democracy in a sane and reasonable manner.”

And he helped lift up the preeminent Southern city, in the midst of all the fearful racial troubles.

There were bombings and kidnappings, killings and the rest. But when Atlanta desegregated its public schools, the scene was “completely peaceful,” Ms. Clowse writes. If the city was not quite “too busy to hate,” as Mayor Hartsfield said, it overall rose above the problem to grow by jumps and bounds.

From the start, McGill worked with the top Atlanta leadership, especially on racial problems. This leadership, perhaps, began with the incomparable golfer and lawyer Bobby Jones, whom McGill covered during his long years as a sports writer; and more pervasively with the legendary Robert W.Woodruff, the president of Coca-Cola. Woodruff, who should be a model for every aspiring CEO, time and again rescued his close friend McGill from the cauldron. It was Woodruff who offered his ranch out West during the only time the “black dog” depression kept the editor away from work. Family tragedies helped get him down.

The Atlanta power structure, many of whose members disagreed with but respected McGill, and one of whom had the butler cut McGill’s picture out of his front-page column each morning, somehow put together a chemistry that made their city tower.

(Among delightful opprobria, I like one not to be found in the Clowse book: Segregationist Roy Harris of Augusta, running for something or other, had as the sixth item in his platform “To run Ralph McGill clean out of the State of Georgia.”)

Atlanta took off, leaving other cities that had begun with the same resources, such as my own beloved Chattanooga, somewhat behind.

Chattanooga also was the city of Ralph McGill’s upbringing. He was graduated from McCallie School, which helped produce the first major Tennessee Republican politician to free himself from the segregation thing, Sen. Howard Baker; and billionaire Ted Turner.

Ralph McGill had been born in Soddy, Tennessee, 20 miles from Chattanooga. His early influence was Unionist, always a strong credo in upper and parts of lower East Tennessee; Calvinist; and Republican. His parents gave him a lifelong belief—that whatever the station in life, people are all God’s children. Late in his own life, he became an Episcopalian and taught Sunday school. Barbara Clowse has the striking line that religion can give structure to one’s strengths and energies, while engendering hope in the case of one’s weaknesses.

When I came to know McGill well, many years before his death, he showed the ravages of the newspaper wars. His frame was shrunken a bit, his face craggier than ever. He had stopped drinking. His growly voice, some have put it, was “like a barn door swinging in a high wind.” But he was as energetic as ever.

Next to his heart was his humanity. He was forever encouraging younger writers. After I became editor of The Chattanooga Times at 34, he kept sending me one-paragraph letters whenever he liked a column.

He always felt close to the lowest and downtrodden. He even empathized as a human being with some of those he most deplored in print, such as a Gene Talmadge or a Lester Maddox.

In Washington’s Jefferson Hotel, a little band would gather during meetings of the American Society of Newspaper Editors.

There was burr-headed Bill Baggs, the ex-Bomber pilot who was editor of Cox’s Miami News. A superb talker, jokester and prankster, Baggs was a protége of McGill.

There was Harry Ashmore, ex-combat lieutenant colonel, who won a Pulitzer Prize as editor of the Arkansas Gazette while the paper under Hugh Patterson was winning one for itself. He was the storyteller, with a mordant wit. All of us occasionally passed along the vilest of racial jokes—something it took my wife 20 years to understand. We laughed at the jokes, not with them. If you did not laugh, you died.

There was Gene Patterson, who succeeded when McGill moved up to publisher. I had known him briefly when we were correspondents in London in 1950—51.He won a Pulitzer, as Ms. Clowse points out, for defending Julian Bond’s right to sit in the Georgia legislature.

Occasionally there was Mark Etheridge of Louisville, the most understanding and able editor-publisher to come out of the period.

And there was Col. John Nicholas Popham III, in some ways the greatest but with possibly the least credit. His conversation is magical. A veteran of nine landings as chief of Marine Corps combat correspondents in the Pacific, ole Pop, a Fordham philosophy major, and a devout Catholic, always has a reason for what he does and says. Now 88, he was managing editor of The Chattanooga Times and my mentor for these 40 years. As the longtime New York Times Southern correspondent, he lived the desegregation story every step of the way. And for some 20 years or more, a seminar named after him, which now meets at the University of Georgia, has pulled together 50 to 75 journalists and educators devoted to John Popham’s ideals.

And there was Ralph McGill, just in from Timbuktu, full of enthusiasm for how the Timbuktuans do it.

Off on the road some place would be William (Silver Bullet) Emerson of (Newsweek), later to become the last editor of The Saturday Evening Post. Emerson is the only man alive who on a few occasions can out-talk, and out-eloquent, Popham.

This was a core group of writing editors, for major dailies, who were cast as “liberals” in Atlanta or Biloxi, and as middle-roaders in a North that did not always understand the problems.

On top of the race problem, there was the editor-owner problem. We were never allowed to forget that as Marse Henry Watterson said, to be a great editor, you had to have unlimited scholarship, vast courage and 51 per cent of the stock.

And of course, deadliest of all, was the coming of television and computers, squeezing newspapers. Well, about all I can say is that the day I read my New York Times on line is the day I shall jump off the nearest building.

I run on; with thanks to Barbara Clowse for all the hard work in this book; and for the memories. Like when the rest of us lay exhausted in the Jefferson Hotel after a night of talk and hilarity, and McGill and Baggs were off for an early-morning hospital visit to a black hotel waiter named Walter.

When Ralph McGill died suddenly in 1969, two days short of his 71st birthday, 10 or so newspaper friends gathered to raise a glass before the funeral at All Saints Church in Atlanta. To Popham and me, there did not seem to be a great many blacks in the church, although Ms. Clowse says that many lined the streets on the way to the cemetery. So it goes. The only thing certain in all of this is that the mighty heart was stilled with his big boots on.


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