During the most tumultuous and violent years of the civil rights struggle, Eugene Patterson stood out as a voice of reason and conscience. As editor of The Atlanta Constitution from 1960 to 1968, he wrote thousands of columns—many addressed directly to fellow white Southerners—setting out the campaign for desegregation in clear moral terms, and explaining that the sky wouldn’t fall if his readers embraced equal rights. “I see what you’re trying to do,” one reader objected. “You’re trying to make us think that we’re better than we are.”
Patterson was raised on a Georgia farm and served as a tank platoon commander in Europe during World War II, which he described as the formative experience of his life. It offered him an escape from the segregationist South and “let him see, in a foreign setting, where race hatred inevitably led,” said The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. After the war, he worked as a reporter for small-town newspapers in Texas and Georgia, and in 1953 was hired as London bureau chief for the United Press. There Patterson wrote his most famous news lead, reporting on the unexpected survival of a well-known American author who had crashed his plane in Uganda: “Ernest Hemingway came out of the jungle today carrying a bunch of bananas and a bottle of gin.”
Patterson joined The Atlanta Constitution in 1956, and was appointed editor four years later. While other Southern editors were reluctant to cover the civil rights movement, Patterson used his daily column to force “a people with traditions of decency” to face up to the horrors of racism, said The New York Times. His most famous column, titled “A Flower for the Graves,” ran on Sept. 16, 1963, the day after white extremists bombed an African-American church in Birmingham, Ala., killing four young black girls. “A Negro mother wept in the street Sunday morning in front of a Baptist church in Birmingham,” the piece began. “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.” Writing that column, he later said, “was the only time I was absolutely sure I was right.”
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In 1968, Patterson left The Atlanta Constitution to join The Washington Post, and in 1972 became editor of the St. Petersburg, Fla., Times. He remained “the consummate newsman,” said the Post. In 1976, he insisted that news of his arrest on a drunk-driving charge appear on the front page of the Times,to prove that the paper could be as tough on its own as it was on others. Patterson retired in 1988, but never stopped working. “One of his final projects was cutting 600,000 words from the King James Bible,” said the Associated Press. “He reasoned that the Bible is full of great stories that are hard to follow.”
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