Journalist Eugene Patterson dies at 89
By Martin Weil,
Eugene Patterson, a major figure in American journalism and a Pulitzer Prize winner who was known for his courage in standing up for civil rights and opposing segregation while an editor of a newspaper in the Deep South during a difficult period, died Saturday in Florida. He was 89.
A jut-jawed veteran of World War II, Mr. Patterson went on to spend his post-war career in journalism, serving as editor of the Atlanta Constitution in the 1960s while writing a highly influential daily column.
He was hired in 1968 to be managing editor of The Washington Post, where he helped guide news coverage for three years. During his tenure, the paper published the Pentagon Papers, a landmark event in journalism. He later became editor of the St. Petersburg Times and chairman of Poynter Institute in Florida.
While at the Constitution, he won the 1967 Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing.
In one of the best known columns from his Atlanta days, he set out his view that all Southern whites were complicit in the deadly 1963 Birmingham church bombing.
He described the African American woman who held the shoe of her slain daughter.
“We hold that shoe with her,” he wrote.
"Every one of us in the white South holds that small shoe in his hand.”
The Associated Press quoted him as calling that column “ the high point of my life."
In the 2006 interview, he told the AP that writing it marked “ the only time I was absolutely sure I was right.” The truth about the causes of violence against African Americans and about the shirking of responsibilities by whites who should know better was not being told, he said, and “ we tried to change that."
When he left his post in St. Petersburg at the age of 65, deciding, as he put it, that 41 years in news “was plenty,” he wrote a valedictory, thanking his readers, recalling his career and addressing those who he said might be curious about whether there was any way to make a living that is better than journalism.
“I can’t imagine that there is,” he wrote. Proceeding to make the case for his assertion, he told of the people whom he said he had been fortunate enough to meet, including “every American president since Franklin Roosevelt.”
Even in that column, he took the position of a career reporter, considering the attractions of journalism from both sides, noting that “inelegant assignments come along too,” as well as those he described as “crushingly sad.”
The column revealed him as a man who was steeped in the romance of the American newsroom, as it was in the last half of the last century, with its chances, at its best, to report the news, speak the truth, and offer something to think about to his fellow citizens at a pivotal time in history.
Still addressing those who might consider working in newspapers, he asked whether a reporter could ever be free of the frantic rush of daily news gathering, and “engage in an important issue in depth, over time.”
His answer was a decisive yes, citing “more than a decade’s editorial work in Atlanta” that was “centered on the civil rights revolution that ramified into every” aspect of life in the South — and of the nation.
Feeling that “mountainous issue begin to move forward” rewarded him the most, Mr. Patterson said.
He wrote in his farewell of meeting royalty and celebrities, prime ministers and potentates.
But it was clear also that he recognized the significance of his contact with one of the nation’s principal figures in the great revolution in the life of his nation and region.
“I can tell my grandchildren I knew Martin Luther King Jr.,” he wrote.
Mr. Patterson, who was known as Gene, was described in biographies as one of the native Southerners who became journalistic spokesmen for “an enlightened South.” By the time he achieved that position of eminence, and stood amid his fellow Southerners and called for an end to segregation, he had had long seasoning in life and in his profession. He had grown up milking cows and butchering hogs. He served in the Army in combat Europe in World War II, and been a reporter and bureau chief for the old United Press in New York and London. He had been a protege in Atlanta of the legendary editor, Ralph McGill.
Eugene Corbett Patterson was born in Valdosta, Ga., on Oct. 15, 1923. He worked on the family farm but showed early interest in journalism, frequenting the offices of a weekly paper in Adel, Ga. . He attended North Georgia College, in Dahlonega, and edited the campus newspaper. He studied journalism at the University of Georgia, graduating in 1943. Soon after, he was in the Army and became a tank commander in George Patton’s Third Army.
After the war, he resigned an Army commission and went to work for a Texas newspaper near his Army post.
He was married in 1950 to Mary Sue Carter; the couple had one daughter, Mary.