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Eugene Patterson, conscience of the South

The Georgia journalist played a pivotal role in the civil rights movement.

January 17, 2013|By Steve Oney
  • Eugene Patterson, shown in 1984, helped fellow Southern whites understand the civil rights movement in the 1960s.
Eugene Patterson, shown in 1984, helped fellow Southern whites understand… (Associated Press )

During World War II, as a tank commander in Gen. George S. Patton's 3rd Army, Eugene Patterson participated in a daring maneuver that helped assure the Allied victory in the Battle of the Bulge. Asked subsequently what he was most proud of about his part in this and other engagements, Patterson often talked about how he led troops into combat not with an impersonal "Go" but with a command that signaled his intention to expose himself to the same dangers they faced: "Let's go."

Patterson, who died of cancer Saturday at 89, was a 21-year-old lieutenant when he fought under Patton. But even then, he possessed the innate gift for leadership that two decades later allowed him to play a key role in one of America's most crucial domestic upheavals, the civil rights movement. As editor of the Atlanta Constitution from 1960 until 1968, Patterson helped to convince his fellow Georgians that it was time to accept racial integration. He did this not by hectoring from on high but by grappling in print with the same dilemmas his readers were confronting. Just as he had done on the battlefields of Europe, he led from within the ranks.

During his eight years at the Constitution's helm, Patterson produced a column every day — 3,200 in all. A graceful, funny and literate writer, he learned his trade at small newspapers and at UPI, where during the 1950s he was its London bureau chief.

From the time he started in Atlanta, Patterson took up the issue of race. "It is very lonely to be a Southerner in a national gathering," he wrote practically the first week on the job while covering the Democratic convention in Los Angeles that nominated John F. Kennedy for president. "The band plays Dixie and we yip. The others smile and look at each other."

Patterson's use of the editorial "we" was intentional and significant. He relied on it through the 1960s to tell his readers — especially the white ones — that he felt what they were feeling. He was saying he understood their sense of dislocation and that if they would struggle with him then he and they could embrace what was right: equality for blacks. As he put it in 1961, after the peaceful desegregation of his alma mater, the University of Georgia: "We have seen that the federal power acts only when we do not." We have accomplished this ourselves, he wanted Georgians to know, and now we must do more.

Patterson, of course, was not the sole Southern journalist to champion integration. Starting in 1946 and continuing essentially every other year for two decades, the Pulitzer board awarded its prize for editorial writing to editors below the Mason-Dixon Line. The first of these went to Hodding Carter of Mississippi's Delta Democrat Times. The last went to Patterson in 1967 for his columns upbraiding the Georgia Legislature for refusing to seat a young Julian Bond after his election to the body by Atlanta voters. The Legislature claimed its decision was based on Bond's opposition to the war in Vietnam. Poppycock, Patterson, said: The issue was race. The U.S. Supreme Court ultimately ordered that Bond be seated.

Through it all, Ralph McGill, the Constitution's publisher, backed Patterson. Indeed, McGill — winner of the 1959 Pulitzer for his editorials, most particularly a column about the terrorist bombing of Atlanta's main reform synagogue — was very much his senior partner. An erudite product of Vanderbilt University who wrote like his namesake, Ralph Waldo Emerson, McGill made the paper a beacon of sanity. Patterson, 25 years younger than his mentor (he respectfully called him "Pappy") and the product of a dirt-poor south Georgia farm, provided the voice of the common man. This was ultimately a blessing.

Never was Patterson's ability to connect with plain folks more apparent than in his most famous column, "A Flower for the Graves." He wrote it in the immediate aftermath of the Sept. 15, 1963, bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., which took the lives of four black girls.

"A Negro mother wept in the street Sunday morning in front of a Baptist church in Birmingham," Patterson began. "In her hand she held a shoe, one shoe, from the foot of her dead child. We hold that shoe with her. Every one of us in the white South holds that small shoe in his hand."

There it was again — the editorial "we." Patterson refused to put distance between himself and his readers. He was saying that this was as much on him as it was on them. The bell tolled for all white Southerners. It was time for change. Everyone must change.

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