California Forum

Voices of justice, voices of two Pulitzer winners

A Ku Klux Klan member thumbs his nose at the photographer while protesting outside the Atlanta Journal-Constitution building in December 1960. The KKK was protesting integration at lunch counters and Ralph McGill, the editor and daily columnist of the Atlanta Constitution who opposed segregation. McGill won a Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing in 1959.
A Ku Klux Klan member thumbs his nose at the photographer while protesting outside the Atlanta Journal-Constitution building in December 1960. The KKK was protesting integration at lunch counters and Ralph McGill, the editor and daily columnist of the Atlanta Constitution who opposed segregation. McGill won a Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing in 1959. Atlanta Journal-Constitution file

Happy 100th anniversary, Pulitzer Prizes.

This year, there will be four events across the country celebrating a century of achievements by journalists, authors and playwrights who have touched our emotions, fired our passions, and, so often, removed the bindings that veiled the sores of our society.

The first event will be held March 31 and April 1 at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Fla. It will focus on the “Voices of Social Justice and Equality.”

Which brings me to the black-and-white picture hanging on a wall at home and what it says about two of the hundreds of Pulitzer recipients, two who sit high in the pantheon of journalistic heroes.

It was taken on a cool December day in 1960 in Atlanta. The Ku Klux Klan, formally dressed in starched white sheets and those silly pointed caps, was protesting in front of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution building. Photographer Charles Pugh captured the image just as the lead Kluxer thumbed his nose at the camera.

Their targets: integration at lunch counters and Ralph McGill, the editor and daily columnist of the Constitution, who was a preacher of right and reason at a time when it was rare.

But this wasn’t anything unusual for those of us who worked for either paper during the early and middle days of the civil rights movement. Vitriol and threats were common, which shows that some things never change.

Groups and individuals whose seemingly sole purpose in life was to cruelly discriminate against minorities, especially African Americans, often used McGill, and his successor as editor, Gene Patterson, as their own personal piñatas.

Both men, however, faced down their attackers and helped lead their city through the journey of school desegregation without violence or the pictures of white parents cursing black children, unlike what happened in other cities in Georgia and throughout the neighboring South.

McGill, who won a Pulitzer in 1959, wrote a daily column at the Constitution from 1938 until 1969, the year he died, more than 10,000 in all. Patterson, who won a Pulitzer in 1967, did the same for eight years; you can do the arithmetic.

Part of their Pulitzer entries included columns that many of us will never forget and always associate with each of them. They dealt with the very thing caught on film that December day: raw hatred for anyone who was different.

Read aloud and listen to some of the words that McGill wrote on Oct. 13, 1958, the day after the bombing of the Atlanta Jewish Temple:

“Dynamite in great quantity ripped a beautiful Temple of worship in Atlanta. It followed hard on the heels of a like destruction of a handsome high school in Clinton, Tennessee.

“The same rabid, mad dog minds were, without question, behind both. They also are the source of previous bombings in Florida, Alabama and South Carolina. The school house and the church are the targets of diseased, hate-filled minds.”

Further down, he wrote, “When the wolves of hate are loosed on one people, then no one is safe. Hate and lawlessness by those who lead release the yellow rats and encourage the crazed and neurotic who print and distribute hate pamphlets, who shrieked that Franklin Roosevelt was a Jew, who denounce the Supreme Court as being Communist and controlled by Jewish influences.”

Any of that sound familiar today?

Then there was Patterson’s column on Sept. 16, 1963, the day after the bombing of a Birmingham church, which killed four young black girls. Read and listen:

“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. …

“We hold that shoe in our hand, Southerner. Let us see it straight, and look at the blood on it. Let us compare it with the unworthy speeches of Southern public men who have traduced the Negro; match it with the spectacle of shrilling children whose parents and teachers turned them free to spit epithets at small huddles of Negro school children for a week before this Sunday in Birmingham; hold up the shoe and look beyond it to the state house in Montgomery where the official attitudes of Alabama have been spoken in heat and anger.

“Let us not lay the blame on some brutal fool who didn’t know any better. We knew better. We created the day. We bear the judgment.”

That evening, Walter Cronkite invited Patterson to read his entire column on the CBS newscast.

McGill and Patterson repeatedly spoke to their readers out of deep despair for what was and an unyielding hope for what could be.

Their voices have been stilled, but their words live on, and given what we are witnessing now they are as meaningful today as they were yesterday, perhaps even more so.

Gregory Favre is the former executive editor of The Sacramento Bee and retired vice president of news for The McClatchy Company. From 1957 to 1963, he was the assistant sports editor of the Atlanta Journal.

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