There are times as a newspaper columnist when I feel like I’m trying to perfect a soon-to-be lost art, like being the best sculptor in Pompeii, or Henry Ford’s carriage driver. With journalism changing as fast as the world around us, will 850 words about anything be worth the time it takes to read them for much longer?
Why read a column when someone can just scroll through a bunch of Tweets instead?
But every New Year’s Day, I am reminded of the answer when I stop and spend some time with the columns of just a few of the people who came before me here are the paper.
I read Ralph McGill and Celestine Sibley, Eugene Patterson, and Cynthia Tucker. And of course, I go back to Jim Galloway far more than once a year.
Reading McGill’s columns reminds me that the country has been in a place of political upheaval before and made it through to the other side.
McGill won the Pulitzer Prize in 1959 for his editorials about segregation in the deep South and he wrote for years to push the South’s politics toward progress.
One collection of his columns, “The Best of Ralph McGill,” includes at least a dozen about the Klu Klux Klan, which was operating openly in Georgia in McGill’s day, and his complete disgust for its members, who “made jackasses of themselves, their city and their state.”
He chronicled individual Klansmen and the towns they lived in and terrorized. He described in detail their abuses against Black Georgians and the shame the culture brought upon the entire South.
“The Klan, or a manifestation of the Klan, is a cancer which will sicken and harm any town which does not rise to put it down,” he warned in 1949.
Eugene Patterson succeeded McGill as the Constitution’s editor and won a Pulitzer in 1967 for his own work on the editorial page.
“A Flower for the Graves” was one of his saddest, and most powerful dispatches following the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham in 1963.
The men who set the dynamite would be known someday, he wrote, but the guilt for four Black children’s deaths belonged to the entire White South.
“Only we can trace the truth, Southerner, you and I…We watched the stage set without saying it.”
Celestine Sibley wrote more than 10,000 columns during her 58 years working for the Atlanta Constitution. She wrote about everything from a child’s prayer over lunch at the Majestic Diner to the vanishing rural corners of now-suburban Atlanta, like her Sweet Apple Cabin near Woodstock.
More than anything, her columns captured the place and time she covered.
Reading her columns today, you can still see the asphalt-can shed that a family she wrote about had built and lived in on the outskirts of pre-war Atlanta.
You can hear the rain beating on the roof of her car as she sped down a Mississippi highway, and the sound of her crackling car radio announcing that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had been killed.
And you can almost smell the casseroles that the ladies from the neighborhood brought to Reg Murphy’s living room in 1974 on the day news came that the Constitution’s editor had been kidnapped.
“The first day after he disappeared there had been no word and nobody knew what to hope for or what exactly to fear,” she wrote. The food that came on trays beneath worried faces, “might be a bulwark against disaster.”
Sibley never wrote only about politics, but she was such a piece of the architecture of journalism in Georgia that the state House of Representatives named its press gallery after her in 2000. A brass plate with her name on it tells every journalist who pulls open the gallery’s wood-and-glass door that hers was an example to follow.
New years brought new faces to Atlanta’s pages, writers who were equally celebrated and impactful. Cynthia Tucker won a Pulitzer Prize for her columns holding local and national politicians to account for their actions, no matter who they were.
The title of her column about former Atlanta Mayor Bill Campbell says it all: “Poor little big man’s pity party: No reason to feel sorry for Campbell.” Tucker wrote that column just as jury selection was beginning for his corruption trial. The jurors seemed to share her thinking when they found Campbell guilty and sent him to prison.
And my own predecessor Jim Galloway had originally wanted to be a foreign correspondent in Moscow. But with newspaper budgets going as they were in the 1980s, he ended up in far less glamorous haunts of Cobb County instead.
Jim covered that beat like the hot zone of a Cold War anyway, and as he watched the earliest days of Newt Gingrich’s political education, Cobb County became its own kind of training ground for the modern political warfare we’ve all come to know too well.
There are too many other great Atlanta columnists to name here, and I’d get in trouble for leaving many out if I tried to list them all.
But take a moment this winter break to read the words of just a few of them. Their columns, filed on deadline, one after another, made a difference in the city that Atlanta became, 850 words at a time.
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