Friday, February 1, 2013

All My Fathers

If you do not know or remember who Eugene Patterson was, treat yourself to a reminder of what a hero looks like.  Eugene Patterson died a couple of weeks ago.  I am just now learning about it, because I no longer read a daily newspaper, even the one I worked for and Eugene Patterson edited 50 years ago.  I have changed with the times, which are the age of electronics.

Strictly speaking, I worked for The Atlanta Journal 50 years ago.  Eugene Patterson was editor of The Atlanta Constitution.  In those days, The Journal  was an afternoon, The Constitution a morning newspaper, combined only for Sundays and holidays.   I was still an impressionable teenager, and it was my privilege to breathe the same air with intelligent, honorable, and courageous people like Eugene Patterson at 10 Forsyth St., where those newspapers were written, edited, and printed.  During the height of the Civil Rights struggle, half a million Georgians read the Atlanta newspapers daily, some for leadership, others for target practice.

Eugene Patterson, Ralph McGill, and Jack Nelson, Pulitzer Prize winners all at The Atlanta Constitution in the 1960's--AJC Photo.

Eugene Patterson was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for writing these words in response to the murders in Birmingham, Ala., of four Sunday school girls by dynamite in 1963:

A Flower for the Graves.
By Eugene Patterson

A Negro mother wept in the street Sunday morning in front of a Baptist Church in Birmingham. 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.
It is too late to blame the sick criminals who handled the dynamite. The FBI and the police can deal with that kind. The charge against them is simple. They killed four children.
Only we can trace the truth, Southerner — you and I. We broke those children's bodies.
We watched the stage set without staying it. We listened to the prologue unbestirred. We saw the curtain opening with disinterest. We have heard the play.
We — who go on electing politicians who heat the kettles of hate.
We — who raise no hand to silence the mean and little men who have their nigger jokes.
We — who stand aside in imagined rectitude and let the mad dogs that run in every society slide their leashes from our hand, and spring.
We — the heirs of a proud South, who protest its worth and demand it recognition — we are the ones who have ducked the difficult, skirted the uncomfortable, caviled at the challenge, resented the necessary, rationalized the unacceptable, and created the day surely when these children would die.
This is no time to load our anguish onto the murderous scapegoat who set the cap in dynamite of our own manufacture.
He didn't know any better.
Somewhere in the dim and fevered recess of an evil mind he feels right now that he has been a hero. He is only guilty of murder. He thinks he has pleased us.
We of the white South who know better are the ones who must take a harsher judgment.
We, who know better, created a climate for child-killing by those who don't.
We hold that shoe in our hand, Southerner. Let us see it straight, and look at the blood on it. Let us compare it with the unworthy speeches of Southern public men who have traduced the Negro; match it with the spectacle of shrilling children whose parents and teachers turned them free to spit epithets at small huddles of Negro school children for a week before this Sunday in Birmingham; hold up the shoe and look beyond it to the state house in Montgomery where the official attitudes of Alabama have been spoken in heat and anger.
Let us not lay the blame on some brutal fool who didn't know any better.
We know better. We created the day. We bear the judgment. May God have mercy on the poor South that has so been led. May what has happened hasten the day when the good South, which does live and has great being, will rise to this challenge of racial understanding and common humanity, and in the full power of its unasserted courage, assert itself.
The Sunday school play at Birmingham is ended. With a weeping Negro mother, we stand in the bitter smoke and hold a shoe. If our South is ever to be what we wish it to be, we will plant a flower of nobler resolve for the South now upon these four small graves that we dug.


Tommy said...

WOw! Thanks for posting this, Bill, and for 50 years later, still celebrating it! I read this blog because of your historical and personal perspectives, and they're usually inspirational.

Tina said...

The official portrait of Lester Maddox that hangs in the state capitol building has a detail that few people notice....on the desk by the former gov. there's a rolled up copy of the Atlanta Constitution with a fish inside. The head and tail of the fish are protruding from the paper. When I saw the picture a few years ago it brought back bad memories of the South's shameful past.

Carl Bergman said...


In the 50s and 60s, we had two Constitution subscriptions. One for my folks and one for me. I was addicted to McGill and Patterson. I generally agreed with them. Jack Nelson combined integrity and courage. Either is a enviable trait. He had both. It's only in hindsight that I realize how remarkable they were.

While I heard, read and saw them on TV, I never met McGill. Patterson spoke at Oglethorpe when I was a sophomore. He lamented Goldwater's appeal, which was based on his opposition to the Civil Rights Act of 1964. He was a powerful speaker for why Barry was off base.

I used to carry one of McGill's columns in my wallet. It was on the Battle Hymn of the Republic. I learned from him that if you are going to write for an audience, you have to vary your topics. So he would often write about spring coming to North Georgia, etc.. He had a poet buried in his sportswriter, political commentator soul.

As I recall, Patterson left the paper in 1968 in defense of BJ Phillips a columnist who got a lot of flack for her take on Georgia Power trying to pass a federal tax on to its consumers. Of course, they were accused of having an affair, which was nonsense. I knew her boy friend and he wasn't Patterson. Anyway, he went to then Tampa Times and made it into a Pulitzer magnet.

One of my Grady friends made me quite jealous. McGill was her Sunday School teacher. She loved him.

Cotter Pen said...

I suspect anyone ever associated with The Journal and/or The Constitution is proud to be remembered in a portrait of Lester Maddox as the fishwrapper, nor the worse thing the axhandlers and pointed hood crowd called us.

Cotter Pen said...

I had several occasions when I worked at The Journal to talk to Ralph McGill, and he was never too important to give me good day, good advice, or a good interview for the employee newsletter. McGill and Patterson were not the only admirable heroes I once worked with at the Journal-Constitution. I could make a long list. Every thing I am proud to know about journalism, I learned from them, thus All My Fathers. Patterson just happened to be the one who died two weeks ago.


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