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The changing South of Gene Patterson


Journalism of Civil Rights, 1960-1968

Edited by Roy Peter Clark, Raymond Arsenault and Randall M. Miller

University Press of Florida, $24.95, 293 pp

Not often can we see history being written. Seldom can we go back in time with one who was there. Rarely can we watch events push the past into the future. But through Gene Patterson's newspaper columns, published in the Atlanta Constitution from 1960-1968 and now collected in The Changing South of Gene Patterson, we can witness how the South of yesterday became the South of today.

Make no mistake, this is no warmed-over version of Ole Dixie, gone but not forgotten. These are the words of one who coupled courage with wise counsel and understanding with hair-shirt criticism to hurry that change along. Before Patterson became editor of the St. Petersburg Times, he served for eight sometimes trying and tumultuous years from 1960 into 1968 as editor of the Atlanta Constitution. He had succeeded Ralph McGill as Southern parish priest and village watchman.

No sooner had he moved into the editor's chair than his conscience forced him to tackle the issue that would confront him time and time again. As he wrote from the 1960 Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles, "Here before the nation lay an honest issue _ the wrongs suffered by the Negro." And the response of the South's Democratic leadership pained him. "This flaw is their insistent effort to justify instead of rectify Southern wrongs."

Next came the federal courts telling Georgia that its public school could not remain segregated. Patterson found both division and unity on that question among his people. "Both those who doubt the justice of forced segregation and those who . . . want to maintain it, are led by differing paths to the same conclusion, if order and education are to continue in Georgia." That conclusion, he said again and again, was to keep the schools open.

Southern change was by no means confined to race. And this son of the soil found another difference on a visit back home to the family farm in the bright leaf tobacco country of South Georgia's Cook County. "Intelligent businessmen saw they couldn't go on simply making sales in town to fewer and fewer farmers. So they began making jobs." The result? "New problems, new products, new jobs. This is the new shape the old South is taking."

The year 1961 came and with it Gov. Ernest Vandiver's decision to admit blacks to the University of Georgia. A student riot underscored the editor's point that the question had been one of order as well as law.

"The governor, the legislature, and the people of Georgia have faced the law," wrote Patterson. "The question now is solely one of order. . . . And we do not have the slightest doubt that Ernest Vandiver is going to snatch a knot in the arm of the first aide, underling or unfriendly kibitzer who presumes to discourage or short-circuit his power to keep the order in the state, with state forces, and by state decision, next time." Desegregation of Atlanta's public schools followed smoothly a few months later.

That same year brought a more vexing challenge in civil rights. Even some liberals struggled with the passive resistance strategy that embraced both sit-ins and freedom rides. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. saw passive resistance as the only effective means available to a black minority reaching for rightful change. The Constitution saw it as a departure from obedience to law, the newspaper's most appealing argument among whites for desegregation.

"The Negro has been the offended man, not the offender, and strength born of this endurance has raised him step by unarguable step from the cellar of segregation through unassailable court actions when force of law was required," wrote Patterson. "But the method he has chosen is new. It goes outside the law. To many who sympathize with his aim, this is all right. To many, however, it is not; and that is the weakness the Negro might as well weigh: Regardless of whether he is right or wrong, he is giving cause for comfort to some white consciences, where none have been comfortable before."

Patterson never forgot that all politics is local, even as he pushed and plugged for national and regional progress and marveled at Atlanta's centers of learning and research and the hustle and hucksterism of its houses of commerce. The column, "Nice Guys Do Finish First," saw a symbol in the handshake that marked the transfer of power from one mayor to another, Bill Hartsfield to Ivan Allen. In wealth and privilege, he wrote, "They started a long way apart. But they were warmed by the same fires. They stand side by side at the same place now, and their handshake is an expression of democracy's main strength _ a set of ideals."

The editor's crystal ball spotted a promising trend in an alliance brokered in 1962 among the six national civil rights organizations by the Southern Regional Council, an interracial organization headquartered in Atlanta. The column "From Protest to Performance" welcomed the voter registration drive the alliance engendered.

"Persuading voters to register may seem prosaic at first to people recently preoccupied with picket lines," said Patterson. "But as the Negro is able to bring his fight out of the streets and into the main channel of orderly, democratic political action at the polls, tension will drop and opportunity will rise, not fitfully, but in steady and continuing measure." That prediction would come true, but not before a racist riot that year turned the University of Mississippi campus into a battle scene akin to those seen by Patterson in World War II Europe. Before blacks could come into their own politically, Americans in both the South and the nation first had to confront the horrors and celebrate the heroism of 1963.

The televised spectacle of police dogs and fire hoses assaulting black demonstrators in Birmingham's Kelley Ingram Park would arouse a nation to outrage and, later, a Congress to action. Gov. George Wallace would pose and posture in the schoolhouse door at the University of Alabama. Dr. King would stir the world with his evocation of a dream at the March on Washington. And a Klan church bombing would leave four little girls dead in their Sunday best.

The editor found a symbol in the little shoe held by a weeping black mother at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham that bright September Sunday. "Every one of us in the white South holds that small shoe in his hand," he wrote. "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 its 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."

However, Patterson never lost faith that law-abiding Southerners would triumph in the end. So it was with the challenges posed by the 1964 Civil Rights Act and its ban on discrimination in jobs, voting and public accommodations. "The new civil rights act is being obeyed in the South with a readiness that most of us are not yet conscious of. Exceptions are in the headlines. But the history of this year will show it as a time of massive respect for law by the great Southern majority." Patterson had no greater tolerance for racism among blacks than that among whites. He left no doubt of that when Stokely Carmichael dismissed the nonviolence advocated by Dr. King and others as weakness.

Carmichael's prescription for getting "white people off our backs" is weak itself, the editor pointed out. "If Negroes were weak-minded enough to follow his anti-white racism, as some Southern whites have been so long misled by anti-Negro racists to do, such weakness of logic would produce the same result it produced for white Southern segregationists. It would get more people on their backs and off their side."

Americans today often refer to the civil rights movement as though there were but one. In fact there were many movements and many leaders, some of whom risked their lives with no hope of fame or fortune and received none in return. But Martin Luther King Jr. stood tall among them, and the assassination of this Nobel Peace Prize winner both saddened and angered the Constitution's editor.

Patterson wrote: "He introduced us whites to our consciences. Then he paid with his life and left us here. Gone now is the convenience of being pressed by him to do what is right. . . . We, American whites, alone have the power to finish the tasks he could only show us _ to enable an American man of any race to get work, to shelter his family decently, to educate his children well, and above all, to be treated as a neighbor according to his character and not his color."

Thus spoke Gene Patterson, son of a school teacher, South Georgia country boy, World War II tank commander and newspaper editor, one who sought with no little success in those fateful years of the 1960s to end racial repression, heal its wounds and bring togetherness to the South and the Southerners whom he loved so well.

+ Claude Sitton was the Atlanta-based Southern correspondent for the New York Times from 1958-1964, directed civil rights coverage as the Times' national news editor from 1964-68 and served as the editor of the News and Observer in Raleigh, N.C., for 22 years. +