Eugene C. Patterson, a Pulitzer Prize-winning newspaper editor from the Deep South who distinguished himself during the civil rights movement as one of the most forceful white journalists writing about the costs of racial bigotry and violence, died Jan. 12 at his home in St. Petersburg, Fla. He was 89.
He had cancer and complications from congestive heart failure, said his sister Anne Patterson Facer.
Mr. Patterson grew up on a Georgia farm, served as a tank commander under Gen. George S. Patton during World War II and then embarked on what would be one of the most enlightened careers of postwar American journalism. As managing editor of The Washington Post in 1971, he helped oversee publication of the Pentagon Papers, the classified history of the Vietnam War first printed by the New York Times.
But he was best known for his work at the Atlanta Constitution, the powerful Southern newspaper that he led as editor from 1960 to 1968 after succeeding the crusading Ralph McGill. While editor, Mr. Patterson wrote a daily column and received the 1967 Pulitzer Prize in editorial writing, which cited his commentary decrying the Georgia legislature’s refusal to seat civil rights activist and Vietnam War protester Julian Bond.
Mr. Patterson’s most famous column ran Sept. 16, 1963, the day after the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church, an African American congregation in Birmingham, Ala. The Sunday morning attack killed four young girls and became a turning point in the civil rights movement. Mr. Patterson was one of the first writers to explain the events to a deeply divided nation, and in particular to his fellow whites of the South.
In an interview with Hank Klibanoff, a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian of journalism during the civil rights movement, Mr. Patterson recalled that he was mowing his lawn when he received word of the attack. He raced to the office, threw out his column slated to run the next day and on deadline pounded out an appeal that began this way:
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.
Anchorman Walter Cronkite aired the column in its entirety on the “CBS Evening News,” a broadcast that reached millions of American TV viewers.
Klibanoff said in an interview that Mr. Patterson was one of only a few “lonely” white voices for equality in the South at the time, along with McGill and Harry S. Ashmore of the Arkansas Gazette and Hodding Carter Jr. in Mississippi. From 1964 to 1968, Mr. Patterson was vice chairman of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, appointed by then-President Lyndon B. Johnson.
Few journalists eclipsed Mr. Patterson in his ability to speak to white readers.
“Gene Patterson was speaking to his own people,” Klibanoff said in an interview. “I think he understood — even in a world that was so severely divided — there was this vast middle group that called itself segregationist but . . . could be brought into understanding that civility must prevail.’’
Eugene Corbett Patterson was born Oct. 15, 1923, in Valdosta, Ga. His father was a bank cashier and “lost everything” in the crash of 1929, Mr. Patterson told Klibanoff. His mother later ran the farm where he grew up, milking cows and butchering hogs.
Anne Patterson Facer said their mother played a vital role in instilling in them a commitment to racial tolerance at a time when it was rare.
Mr. Patterson received a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Georgia in 1943 before serving in the Army during World War II. He received a Silver Star for gallantry and two awards of the Bronze Star Medal.
After the war, he began his journalism career in Texas and Georgia before rising through the ranks of the United Press wire service in New York and London.
In 1968, he left the Atlanta Constitution and joined The Post. He was one of the first top editors to suggest that once The Post had obtained a copy of the Pentagon Papers, publication should go forward.
In his book “The Powers That Be,” David Halberstam noted Mr. Patterson’s conversation with Katharine Graham, publisher of The Post, in the hours before the documents went to press: “I think the immortal soul of The Washington Post is at stake,” he said. “If we don’t print it, it’s really going to be terrible because the government knows we have the Papers, and we’ll be used as evidence against the [New York]Times.”
Within hours, with advice from all sides, Graham decided to publish. In the ensuing legal battle with the Nixon administration, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of the newspapers. The episode is widely regarded as a seminal moment in the relationship between the government and the journalists who cover it.
In 1972, Mr. Patterson moved to the St. Petersburg Times in Florida. He was widely regarded as the editor who helped make the newspaper — now called the Tampa Bay Times — one of the best and most aggressive investigative newspapers of its size in the nation. It won several Pulitzer Prizes under his watch.
He also oversaw sister publications including Congressional Quarterly. In 1978, after the death of the newspaper’s owner, Nelson Poynter, Mr. Patterson became chairman of the St. Petersburg Times Co. and served in that role until his retirement in 1988.
While serving on the Pulitzer Prize Board at Columbia University in 1981, he was one of the few members of the committee who opposed awarding a Pulitzer Prize to The Post for reporter Janet Cooke’s story about an 8-year-old heroin addict. He said it “didn’t smell right.” Cooke later confessed that the story was a fabrication. The Post returned the Pulitzer.
Mr. Patterson was the consummate newsman. One of the journalistic values he professed was “fear no threatener, favor no pal.” Nor did he favor himself. In 1976, while at St. Petersburg Times, he was charged with drunken driving. He insisted that the story appear on the front page.
His wife of 48 years, the former Mary Sue Carter, died in 1998. Survivors include their daughter, Mary Patterson Fausch of Raleigh, N.C.; his sister; and three granddaughters.
Mr. Patterson once told an interviewer that his column about the 1963 bombing was “the high point of my life.”
“It was,” he said, “the only time I was absolutely sure I was right.”