Revisiting a journalism giant

Revisiting a journalism giant

I just couldn’t pass up the offer.

A friend mentioned that the widow of Ralph McGill, the famous editor of The Atlanta Constitution, was a member of his church. Would I like to meet her, he asked.

I jumped at the chance — thrilled by the opportunity to talk with someone who had a direct connection to one of Atlanta’s and journalism’s historic figures.

McGill, who won the Pulitzer Prize in 1959, stood tall in support of racial tolerance and change in the South from the 1940s through the 1960s.

He started as a sports writer, but over time became a regional and national voice as the United States struggled with matters of race.

As the editor of one of the South’s most important newspapers, he faced harsh criticism and threats for challenging segregationist laws and the treatment of blacks.

McGill, a believer in the rule of law, demonstrated convincingly in his writing that the “separate but equal” approach was not at all equal — even if it was the law at that time. He didn’t at first push for integrated schools, but wrote about the terrible condition of schools for blacks to make his point.

His brilliance, scholars say, was that he presented his views to Southerners as a Southerner. A study of his work shows that he slowly worked his way toward a call for an end to segregation.

He wrote a column every day, but he mixed in other stories and topics instead of writing about racial issues all the time.

Some readers considered him a traitor for his views, but others felt he was a hero.

And so it was with great anticipation that I went to meet Mary Lynn Morgan.

She was McGill’s second wife and was well-known in Atlanta as one of the first female dentists in town. She graduated from Emory University’s dental school and later was the second woman elected as one of the university’s trustees.

They married in 1967; McGill died in 1969.

Morgan, who is in her 90s, was waiting for me when I walked into her Buckhead retirement center. She shared fond memories of McGill.

“He was kind and sweet — and extremely smart,” she said.

As she showed me some old pictures and a portrait of McGill she keeps in her room, Morgan insisted that McGill was never bothered by vituperative criticism of his views.

“He never gave it a thought,” she said of the nasty letters he got. “I learned about those things from other people.”

Leonard Ray Teel, a professor at Georgia State University who wrote the exhaustive 2001 biography “Ralph Emerson McGill: Voice of the Southern Conscience,” knows all about those letters.

“McGill broke the silence” about the racial situation in the South, he said. “He got letters all the time.”

“He was a Southerner, which meant he was a traitor” to those who held segregationist or racist views, Teel said.

But McGill was very effective at getting a wide audience to consider his points, Teel said.

“He would achieve his goal by telling a story,” he said. “He was a good man who had a wonderful ability to tell a story.”

Teel said McGill compared himself to a baseball pitcher; he had to mix up his stories — his “pitches” — so that when he tackled racial issues people would read him.

“People read McGill whether they liked him or not,” Teel said.

Neither Morgan nor Teel was willing to venture an opinion on the question I most wanted them to answer: What would McGill have to say about society’s issues of today?

Morgan wouldn’t speculate, saying only that McGill was an optimist and positive about the world’s possibilities.

Teel begged off too, saying that the duty of the historian is to look back, rather than postulate about a hypothetical future.

And so we are left to speculate what McGill, who wrote more than 10,000 columns, would have to say about today’s problems.

McGill challenged and inspired his contemporaries to treat everyone fairly, to give everyone an equal chance.

If he were around today, it’s a safe bet that McGill would still be telling stories and engaging readers. And he’d still be inviting Atlanta and the South to be better.

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