It was 60 years ago today, Sept. 15, 1963, that a bomb ripped through a church in Birmingham, killing four little girls and wounding the heart of America.
It was a Sunday morning and Eugene Patterson, the executive editor of both the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, was cutting his grass.
Between 1960 and 1968, Patterson wrote a signed column every day. His column for that Monday’s paper was already written. But he rushed to the office and ripped it off the page.
Then he sat down and wrote, “A Flower for the Graves,” for Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Carol Denise McNair.
In the column, Patterson – who would win a Pulitzer Prize for his 1967 editorials for the AJC -- writes about a mourning mother who holds a small shoe dug from the smoldering rubble that belonged to her daughter.
Most significantly, he asks the people of the South – the white people – to take responsibility for the deaths of the girls.
“Only we can trace the truth, Southerner -- you and I,” Patterson wrote. “We broke those children’s bodies.”
Martin Luther King Jr., in his eulogy for the girls on Sept. 18, said of them: “These children—unoffending, innocent, and beautiful—were the victims of one of the most vicious and tragic crimes ever perpetrated against humanity.”
Howell Raines was a senior at Birmingham Southern University at the time of the bombing. Two miles away from the 16th Street Baptist Church where the bodies were recovered from the ruins of the then 90-year-old church.
He didn’t read Patterson’s column, because it wasn’t syndicated in Birmingham.
“To use Gene Patterson’s phrase, the white south was frozen in silence,” Raines said. “What his column did was to bring the conscience of the white South to bear on an event of such horror, such flagrant horror, that it couldn’t be ignored.”
Raines, a former AJC political editor and former executive editor at the New York Times, said the bombing became a watershed moment for white people, “who could no longer deny that they were part of the problem.
“And what that column did, was posed the question, who killed those children?” Raines said. “All of us who tolerated this system killed them.”
Raines was one of the featured speakers on a panel about Patterson’s journalism legacy at this month’s AJC Decatur Book Festival, along with civil rights leader Andrew Young; Hank Klibanoff, former AJC managing editor and co-author of a Pulitzer Prize-winning book on press coverage of the civil rights movement; and journalism scholar Roy Peter Clark.
In 2016, Emory University’s Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library acquired Patterson’s papers.
“One of the things that stories allow us to do is to experience life through the eyes of the heart and soul of others,” said Clark vice president of the Poynter Institute for Media Studies. “Gene understood that. Stories teach us who the villains are. But they also teach us how to love each other.”