ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – Eugene Patterson, the Pulitzer Prize-winning editor and columnist who helped fellow Southern whites understand the civil rights movement, eloquently reminding the silent majority of its complicity in racial violence, died Saturday evening at his Florida home. He was 89.
Patterson was surrounded by family and friends when he died of complications from prostate cancer, according to B.J. Phillips, a spokeswoman for the family.
Patterson was editor of the Atlanta Constitution from 1960 to 1968, winning a Pulitzer Prize in 1967 for editorial writing and doing a signed column every day for eight years. He wrote about the civil rights movement at a time when many Southern newspapers wouldn’t aggressively cover it.
Patterson’s Sept, 16, 1963, column about the Birmingham, Ala., church bombing that killed four girls, titled “A Flower for the Graves,” was so moving he was asked by Walter Cronkite to read it on the “CBS Evening News.”
“A Negro mother wept in the street Sunday morning in front of a Baptist Church in Birmingham,” Patterson began the column. “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. ... We who go on electing politicians who heat the kettles of hate. ... (The bomber) 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.”
“It was the high point of my life,” Patterson said in a June 2006 interview from his home in St. Petersburg. “It was the only time I was absolutely sure I was right. They were not telling the truth to people and we tried to change that.”
Patterson said he was fortunate to work for a newspaper with “deep pockets” and “enlightened” leadership that encouraged him to use his voice.
“We were rather rare editors in the South at that time,” Patterson said of himself and Constitution Publisher Ralph McGill, who both wrote columns. He worked under McGill, himself a Pulitzer winner in 1959, and then succeeded him at the helm of the Constitution four years later.
“Mr. Patterson’s contributions to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Atlanta community and to journalism were enormous. We benefit still from his work and legacy,” said Editor Kevin G. Riley in a statement emailed to The Associated Press.
In the 2004 Discovery Times Channel documentary “Someone’s Watching,” Patterson recalled being asked by the FBI to print damaging information on the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.
“He said we have information from our informant (and that means in FBI lingo, a wiretap) that Dr. King is being unfaithful to his wife,” Patterson said. “And I said to him, ‘We’re not a peephole journal. We don’t print that kind of stuff.”’
When he was approached a second time, Patterson recalled, “I finally said to him, ‘Look, the news story here is not Dr. King’s life. It’s the misuse of the federal police power by the FBI in trying to damage an American citizen.”’
In 1968, Patterson joined the Washington Post and served three years as its managing editor, playing a central role in the publication of the Pentagon Papers. After leaving the Post he spent a year teaching at Duke University.
He became editor of the St. Petersburg Times and its Washington publication, Congressional Quarterly, in 1972 and was later chief executive officer of the St. Petersburg Times Co. Under his leadership, the Times won two Pulitzer Prizes and became known as one of the top newspapers in the country.
Times owner Nelson Poynter, who died in 1978, chose Patterson to ensure his controlling stock in the newspaper company was used to fund a school for journalists then called the Modern Media Insititute. It is now known as the Poynter Institute, which owns the Tampa Bay Times (formerly The St. Petersburg Times).
“A person – one person – had to be entrusted with fulfilling what Mr. Poynter intended,” said Roy Peter Clark, the school’s first faculty member. “That meant he had to be trusted enough not to sell the newspaper to Knight Ridder or Gannett or take away millions of dollars for personal use. He had to be totally trustworthy, so Mr. Poynter chose Mr. Patterson.”
A champion of high ethical standards for journalists, Patterson insisted the St. Petersburg Times play the story prominently on the front page when he was arrested for driving while intoxicated.
In 1981, Patterson refused to join other Pulitzer board members in awarding Washington Post reporter Janet Cooke the prize for her story of a young heroin addict.
Patterson said at the time the story didn’t “smell right,” and said at best the story was “an aberration,” tainted by Cooke’s promise not to disclose information that could help save a child’s life.
Cooke had to return the Pulitzer two days later after acknowledging she had fabricated the story.
Patterson retired from the Times and Poynter in 1988.
“There are several generations of journalists who are journalists because of him,” said Phillips, who was hired by Patterson in 1967 and worked with him at The Post. “A lot of people looked up to him and imagined themselves trying to be like him. It was a good standard.”
A collection of Patterson’s Atlanta Constitution columns was published in book form in 2002 as “The Changing South of Gene Patterson: Journalism and Civil Rights, 1960-1968.”
Patterson was born in 1923 in Georgia, the son of a schoolteacher and a bank cashier who later lost his job during the Great Depression. He grew up on a small farm, and recalled toiling “behind a plow drawn by two mules across 50 acres of isolation.” School, fishing and literature were his only means of escape.
Those experiences in the segregated South would help shape his later world view. Patterson “understood the intense feelings that segregationists had, the great fear they had, that their way of life was about to end,” said Hank Klibanoff director of the journalism program at Emory University and co-author of a Pulitzer Prize-winning book on press coverage of the civil rights movement. “But in the end (he) said that was not reason enough to resist.”
Klibanoff said that when black churches were burned in southwestern Georgia in 1962, Patterson was “deeply disturbed” and wrote a column tweaking white people who claim to be religious but support segregation. He called on whites to raise money to rebuild the churches, spawning an effort that raised $10,000 and later prompted a visit by King.
“When he sat down to write, that conviction came out. And it came out in just a very, very powerfully written way,” Klibanoff said of Patterson, who went on to serve as vice chairman of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission. Klibanoff, a former managing editor of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, said he received a note from Patterson recently in response to a letter he’d written him.
Patterson graduated from the University of Georgia in 1943, then served in the Army in Europe. His platoon was in the thick of fighting during the Battle of the Bulge, the final German offensive of World War II. He received a Silver Star for gallantry in action and a Bronze Star with oak leaf cluster for heroic achievement, according to The Tampa Bay Times.
His first reporting job was at the Temple (Texas) Daily Telegram. He later went on to work for United Press in Atlanta, New York and London. It was there that he wrote one of his most famous leads, on a story about Ernest Hemingway being feared dead in an airplane crash in Uganda.
“Ernest Hemingway came out of the jungle today carrying a bunch of bananas and a bottle of gin,” Patterson wrote.
Even in his last years, Patterson spent time editing and writing. One of his final projects was cutting 600,000 words from the King James Bible. He reasoned that the Bible is full of great stories that are hard to follow.
Clark wrote of that endeavor: “It turns out that even Moses needed an editor.”