Giants of an Era

Neely Young

A few years ago I visited the giant redwood forest north of San Francisco. The trees were nearly as big around as two automobiles, and stretched as high as the heavens. It was an inspiring experience.

I had this same feeling when I attended a book signing hosted by Julia Wallace, editor of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Gene Patterson, former editor of the AJC and founder of Georgia Trend magazine, presented to a group of friends his new book, The Changing South of Gene Patterson: Journalism and Civil Rights, 1960-1968. The book celebrates Patterson’s influential columns as editor of the Atlanta Constitution during the time of Georgia’s dramatic social upheaval in the civil rights era.

In 1960, Atlanta and its old rival, Birmingham, were near-equals, with almost the same size population. But Atlanta was able to move forward as Birmingham — site of the 1963 church bombing and of violent response to civil rights marches — could not. Today Atlanta is the largest and most progressive city in the Southeast, due in part to its reputation as a city of tolerance. Gene Patterson and many of those at his book-signing played a part in leading Atlanta to its current status.

Much like the trees in the giant redwood forest, those attending the signing were the era’s giants of Georgia journalism and politics. For much of the time chronicled in the book I was attending college at the University of Georgia, but I remember the names and faces of the newsmakers and those who reported the news with honesty and courage:

  • Ray Moore, who as director of news at WSB-TV was considered the Walter Cronkite of Georgia.
  • Gravelly-voiced Aubrey Morris, who, with Elmo Ellis, was an influential radio personality for WSB. Both stand in stark contrast to today’s shock-talk radio personalities.
  • Joe Cumming, who covered southern politics and the South for Newsweek.
  • Bill Emerson, a southern correspondent for the Washington Post who was later editor of the Saturday Evening Post.
  • Claude Sitton, national affairs editor for the New York Times, who later went on to be editor of the Raleigh, N.C. Observer.
  • Former Gov. Ernest Vandiver, who took a strong stand to uphold the law of the land. While Alabama’s George Wallace and other southern governors used their state police powers to keep integration away from their schools, Vandiver sent in the state patrol to make sure the University of Georgia was peacefully integrated.
  • John Lewis, who walked with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and is now an influential congressman from Georgia.

Other guests who made a major impact during that time included John Portman, Dr. Samuel Cook, Gregory Favre, Doug Hastings, Roy Clark, Frank Stedman, Jack Burton, Betsy Hastings and Cecil Alexander, who helped design the current Georgia flag.

The most important person at the event was Gene Patterson. As editor of the Constitution, he followed the legendary Ralph McGill. The book jacket says, “Patterson wrote directly to his fellow white southerners everyday, working to persuade them to change their ways. His words were so inspirational that he was asked by Walter Cronkite to read live on the CBS Evening News his most famous column, targeting the Birmingham church bombings.”

Here is an excerpt from that column, written Sept. 16, 1963, titled “A Flower for the Graves.”

“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 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 know better. We created the day. We bear the judgment. May God have mercy on the poor South that has been so 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.”

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