It was 54 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.”
Below is the full text of Patterson’s “A Flower for the Graves,” which originally ran in the Atlanta Constitution on Sept. 16, 1963.
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.
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