Eugene Patterson, 89, voice on civil rights, dies

Published Jan. 13, 2013

As editor of the Atlanta Constitution from 1960 to 1968, Gene Patterson’s image and words anchored the editorial page during the most tumultuous years of the civil rights movement in the South. With his mentor and best friend, Ralph McGill, Patterson used his platform to persuade his fellow white Southerners that on matters of race, they were wrong and that if they changed, the sky would not fall.

“I see what you’re trying to do,” one reader accused. “You’re trying to make us think that we’re better than we are.”

Eugene C. Patterson, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his editorials, died Saturday evening of complications from cancer in St. Petersburg, Fla.. He was 89.

Patterson will be buried at Arlington National Cemetery. Anderson McQueen Funeral Home in St. Petersburg is in charge of arrangements, which were incomplete Sunday.

Patterson was born on Oct. 15, 1923, in Valdosta to a schoolteacher mother and a bank cashier father. The family moved from Nicholls to Douglas and wound up during the Depression on a small farm near Adel.

“I toiled as a boy,” wrote Patterson, “behind a plow drawn by two mules across 50 acres of isolation. … I grew up hard there. We milked cows, butchered hogs and steers, hoed peanuts and pulled corn and picked cotton and cropped tobacco.”

In 1940, he completed junior college at North Georgia College at Dahlonega, where he edited the school paper. He earned a journalism degree from the University of Georgia in 1943 and enlisted in the Army. He fought from Normandy through the Battle of the Bulge and then across the Rhine with Gen. George S. Patton’s Third Army.

By all accounts, Patterson fought bravely, earning Silver and Bronze stars. Until his death, he evoked World War II as the formative influence of his life. It offered the first escape from the segregationist South and let him see, in a foreign setting, where race hatred inevitably led.

In 1946, Patterson headed for the nearest newspaper office in a newly bought suit. He went from Army captain to cub reporter in a single day, launching his journalism career on the pages of the Daily Telegram in Temple, Texas.

A year later he returned to his native Georgia and joined the Macon Telegraph as a city hall reporter. His career took off when the United Press recruited him to work in its Atlanta bureau. From there he became UP bureau chief in Columbia, S. C., where he met his wife, Sue Carter, then a reporter for the Columbia Record.

The UP sent Patterson to New York, where he sharpened his competitive instincts. In 1953, Patterson became bureau chief for the UP in London. It was from there that Patterson issued his most famous news lead after a noted American author crashed his plane in Uganda and was feared dead: “Ernest Hemingway came out of the jungle today carrying a bunch of bananas and a bottle of gin.”

All that experience served as a prelude for what Patterson encountered in Atlanta from 1956 to 1968, during what is now understood as the classic period of the civil rights movement.

Patterson served as executive editor of both the Journal and Constitution from 1956 to 1960, when he succeeded Ralph McGill as editor of the Constitution. McGill was promoted to publisher.

In an era of political assassinations and church bombings, Southern editorial writers who challenged segregation needed courage. Atlanta Mayor William B. Hartsfield advised Patterson not to worry about the anonymous cowards who threatened him with hate mail: “It’s the ones you don’t hear from that you have to worry about.”

Patterson’s equalizer was not a pistol, but a ball-peen hammer hidden in a desk drawer. He never had to wield it, but admitted having, on two occasions, nudged open the drawer.

His daughter, Mary Fausch, remembers how she once phoned her father in a panic because the family dog, Lizzy, had been shot by strangers. “I know who did this, Daddy,” Mary told her father. “It’s the people who are angry about the things you are writing.” The indomitable pup lived to the age of 16 — even with a bullet lodged near her heart.

Patterson was known for his red-hair, his military bearing and his Irish tenor voice that could belt out “Danny Boy” or “Amazing Grace” with spine-chilling clarity. But it was his literary sensibility and editorial voice — part McGill, part Hemingway, part Faulkner — that made him a beacon of progressive reform in the segregationist South.

He wrote a 750-word column every day from 1960 to 1968, more than 3,200 in all. He wrote on Saturdays and Sundays, sometimes by hand in a fishing boat, because he worried that if he wrote two columns on Thursday or Friday, the second would lack the energy of the first.

“To me, writing was like shaving,” Patterson explained. “If a man wants to look good, he gets up in the morning and shaves. That’s what I did every day: shave and write a column.”

With McGill as publisher and Patterson as editor, the Constitution became the leading editorial voice in the South, with a reputation as a progressive force on matters of civil rights.

“Mr. Patterson’s contributions to The Atlanta Journal and Constitution, the Atlanta community and to journalism were enormous. We benefit still from his work and legacy,” said Atlanta Journal-Constitution Editor Kevin Riley.

Former Atlanta Mayor Sam Massell, who was president of the City Council from 1962 until 1970, said the courage that Patterson showed and the topics he tackled — particularly race —helped make Atlanta and guide the city through the turbulent 1960s.

“Gene established himself early on as a protector of Atlanta. He knew local politics, both how the system worked and how it didn’t,” Massell said. “It meant that we had support from the paper, which was extremely important when you are facing such a controversial issue. The daily newspaper was very progressive and unique in the South, to be that advanced on civil rights reforms that were taking place. He was a major factor in the success that we enjoyed.”

Patterson often admitted that his point of view on race took time to develop, that McGill would sometimes chide him for pulling punches and that, like McGill’s, his early opinions were “pale tea.”

As his prose became stronger and his opinions less hesitant, Patterson won a Pulitzer Prize in 1967 for his editorials supporting civil rights for African-Americans and combating white demagogues in Georgia and throughout the South. He also made a difference by what he didn’t do — stalwartly refusing to publish FBI reports about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s private life.

“That’s pretty dangerous stuff,” he told an FBI agent bearing salacious personal information about King, “and it’s not our kind of journalism.”

Patterson’s most famous column was written on September 15, 1963, the day he learned that four young girls had been murdered in Birmingham, Ala., when a dynamite bomb went off in their church. When he told the story, Patterson would describe how he wrote from his home with tears streaming down his face and his own young daughter nearby. The column bore the title: “A Flower for the Graves.”

“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. … 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.”

When word of this editorial reached Walter Cronkite, he invited Patterson to read it, in full, on the CBS Evening News. Patterson’s contribution to social and political change in the South went beyond his opinion columns. In the 1950s and 1960s, he became a close friend and editorial supporter of Georgia governors Ernest Vandiver and Carl Sanders and Atlanta mayors William B. Hartsfield and Ivan Allen.

In a night telephone conversation in 1961, Patterson encouraged Vandiver to stand fast against racial violence designed to frustrate the desegregation of the University of Georgia. And he followed Allen onto Atlanta’s streets on nights when the city experienced violence, vandalism and rioting.

By the end of 1968, Patterson found himself mired in periodic disagreements with publisher Jack Tarver, so he left Atlanta to become managing editor of The Washington Post, serving under publisher Kay Graham and executive editor Ben Bradlee.

His three-year tenure was eventful. Graham would write in her memoir that it was Patterson who insisted to her that she must publish the famous Pentagon Papers. But Patterson and Bradlee were two bulldogs tugging at the same T-bone. Patterson left the Post in 1971 for Duke University, where he spent a year as a professor of public policy.

That same year, Nelson Poynter hired Patterson to become editor of The St. Petersburg Times, now The Tampa Bay Times. Under Patterson’s leadership, the Times gained an international reputation for excellence.

As Patterson’s time in Atlanta receded, he became remembered less as an opinion-shaper on civil rights and more as a national leader of journalistic craft and values. When he retired in 1988, he was CEO of the St. Petersburg Times publishing company and chairman of the board of The Poynter Institute, an acclaimed professional school for journalists.

In 2002, a collection of his Constitution columns was published under the title, “The Changing South of Gene Patterson: Journalism and Civil Rights, 1960-1968.” Patterson’s literary effects are preserved at the Poynter Institute, which has, near one entrance, a saying attributed to Gene Patterson: “Don’t just make a living. Make a mark.”

Hank Klibanoff, former AJC managing editor and co-author of a Pulitzer Prize-winning book on press coverage of the civil rights movement, spoke of Patterson’s relentless optimism.

“It’s hard for people to recognize now how difficult it was to be progressive on the matter of race relations when he was editor of the Constitution,” Klibanoff said. Patterson tried to reach the silent middle ground, those who felt they were segregationists, but he felt were very educable. “He frequently wrote his column to those people, trying to bring them to sanity.”

Klibanoff recalled how appalled Patterson was when black churches were burned in Terrell County in 1962. Patterson’s column calling on whites to raise money to rebuild the churches raised $10,000. “He knew his audience and knew how oppositional they were to change, but he had enough optimism about the goodness of humanity to feel he could make a difference,” Klibanoff said

Friend and protege George Rahdert, attorney for The Tampa Bay Times, said Patterson had enormous courage, wisdom and fortitude.

“He was right on every issue and usually way before the rest of the pack had figured it out,” he said. “He always had the insight to do the right thing. And he would do it with grace and courage. He would never say, ‘You go.’ He said, ‘Lets’s go.’ He really envisioned what newspapers should be and actually became. He was a big part of that.”

Always the editor, Patterson’s last assignment was a massive one — editing the King James Bible. In 2012, working from a laptop and under hospice care, he published “Chord: The Old Testament Condensed,” which lopped out more than a half-million words from the text in an effort to streamline it.

“Some force urged me to lay my editor’s pencil on the Old Testament and lighten its density. Its expository entanglements had tripped up my lifelong efforts to read it through,” Patterson wrote in the introduction. “I wondered if that great river of a story might be made to flow unvexed past the dams of details and tributaries of digression. I wanted to read the Bible as a book aimed at people in the pews, not shelve it as a catalog of passages from which to select a sermon subject or a movie script. A book with a sustaining narrative, easily followed, surely lay there for the telling.”

Patterson is survived by his daughter, Mary Patterson Fausch, of Raleigh, N.C. and St. Petersburg; three granddaughters, Laura Carter Fausch and Emily Carr Fausch, both of Raleigh, and Molly Patterson Fausch, of Columbus, Ohio; and a sister, Anne Facer, of Homosassa, Fla.

Roy Peter Clark is vice president and senior scholar at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Fla. Staff writers Ernie Suggs, Fran Jeffries, Daarel Burnette and Poynter Institute researcher David Shedden contributed to this article.