On the right side of history

A few of us were meeting in the newsroom the other day to walk through our plans for covering the 50th anniversary of the march on Washington.

It was an important discussion because of the history of this city and this newspaper. And then there’s the reality that, even in a world of atomized media, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution remains an important journalistic voice in the South.

We sometimes forget this. Our readers have told us to focus deeply on Metro Atlanta, but I also believe they want us to remember who we are and where we come from.

Someone brought to the meeting a copy of the Aug. 29, 1963 edition of The Constitution (we were two competing newspapers in those days). Its front page carried our report from the march, featuring the bylines of two legends, Ralph McGill and Eugene Patterson. For good measure, below the fold sits an unrelated investigative piece by Pulitzer Prize winner Jack Nelson.

It was a humbling sight.

McGill and Patterson were brilliant and courageous; they spoke the truth about the injustices of racism and segregation to people who were substantially unprepared to be lectured on the evils of their world.

At a time when many white Southerners recoiled at the notion that black people were their equals, McGill and Patterson wrote with respect, even admiration, of the marchers. “Even the most hostile and prejudiced must have been challenged by the steady movement of nearly a quarter million Americans seeking, peacefully, a redress,” McGill wrote in his front page column. “There were no shouted slogans against this country. It was an American show — in the American tradition.”

Without question, these words were designed to soothe white people. Hank Klibanoff, my former boss who is now a journalism historian, said McGill and Patterson knew what they were doing. “They were brilliant in illuminating for readers that the civil rights struggle was about liberating white people and the South from their history of white supremacy and race-motivated violence as much as about bestowing the rights of citizenship on black people,” Hank wrote in an email. “And they become the uncomfortable consciences of the South.”

Hank reminded me that while readers in Atlanta were presented the enlightening words of McGill and Patterson, Southerners elsewhere were getting another story. The Clarion-Ledger of Jackson, Miss., for example, stripped this headline across the top of the front page the day after the March: “Washington Clean with Negro Trash Removed.”

The two dailies in Birmingham buried the stories of Bull Connor’s unleashing of dogs and fire hoses on civil rights demonstrators in the spring of 1963.

“(The Atlanta newspapers) did not seek to ‘own’ the story or seek to get out ahead of other organizations in finding the ugly manifestations of white supremacy,” Hank wrote. “But they were far superior journalistically to any other major newspaper in the states of the Confederacy.”

I choose to believe that the newspaper’s influence was essential to Atlanta’s relatively easy passage through the racial tensions of the 1960s. I still believe our journalism can shape history.

A photo of McGill hangs in our newsroom. His slight scowl is hard to read. I’m not sure what he would make of a roomful of journalists scurrying to post sometimes incremental updates to a host of digital AJCs that reside on everything from desktop computers to mobile phones and iPads.

To be sure, we don’t operate with the clarity that comes with fighting evils as profound and obvious as segregation and racism. But a fair amount of liberating remains to be done. For Georgia and the South to move forward, people here must continue to free themselves from the past and to grasp the future. We can improve the South by demanding more of Georgia as it struggles to develop a 21st Century economy, educate its kids and operate with integrity and transparency. Georgia is a big, influential state capable again of leading the South.

If McGill could scan the newsroom from the perspective of that photo, he would see scores of talented journalists producing work he could never have dreamed of — the kind of grit and gift that can spot a school test cheating scandal in the data of a complex regression analysis.

I believe McGill would recognize the familiar traits of his reporter’s DNA. I hope he would smile.