Twenty years later, as editor of the Atlanta Constitution in the 1960s, Patterson faced another ferocious foe: Southern racists who could not tolerate his opinions.
What caused this rage? Patterson, a native of south Georgia, told his readers that the South had to change its ways. It could no longer act as if it had won the Civil War. The institutionalized barriers that denied African-Americans full citizenship had to be destroyed. The violence carried out against blacks by white Southern terrorists must end.
On Sept. 15, 1963 — the day a bombing at Birmingham’s Sixteenth Street Baptist Church killed four young girls — Patterson wrote a column headlined, “A Flower for the Graves.”
He wrote, “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.”
The column concluded, “We know better. We created the day. We bear the judgment. May God have mercy on the poor South that has so been 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.”
For words like that and many others, Patterson was harassed and threatened, and his family’s dog was shot. Of course, Patterson and the Constitution weren’t alone. A few other Southern newspapers, including this one, decried segregation and championed the drive for equal rights for blacks.
I was reminded of all this last week upon learning that Patterson had died after a lengthy struggle with cancer. He was 89. Besides working at the Atlanta newspaper, Patterson practiced journalism at The Washington Post and the St. Petersburg Times in Florida.
He had long since retired when I had an opportunity in 2004 to listen to him speak to a group of editorial page editors at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Fla. I was wowed by his stamina — while at the Constitution, he wrote a column seven days a week, from 1960 until 1968. I was impressed by his optimism, cheerful manner and humility. And I was struck by the comparison between then and now.
Any Southerner reading his 50-year-old columns today would barely shrug at the progressive ideas proposed on race. Equal opportunity, full voting rights and an end to discrimination on the basis of race are no longer controversial.
Most anyone holding caveman views on race today has the good sense to keep them to themselves. Back then, as Patterson would put it, a writer expressing himself thusly had to be “tough enough to brush off the threats and hate of maybe a majority of your outraged readers.”
That’s not to suggest that opinion writers have it made today. As almost any writer can attest, voicing uncomfortable truths and unpopular opinions will usually unleash an avalanche of hatred. I worry that too many newspapers have lost the will to present strong opinions, to offer editorial leadership on controversial topics. Instead, many seem to shy away from subjects that would enrage readers the way Patterson’s did.
Martin Luther King Jr., whose birthday we will officially mark with a federal holiday on Monday, famously said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Now is no time to keep opinion writers from testing the bounds of that arc.
Bob Davis is associate publisher/editor of The Anniston Star. Contact him at 256-235-3540 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @EditorBobDavis.