Jan 13, 2013

(AJC) --- As editor of the Atlanta Constitution from 1960 to 1968, Gene Patterson’s image and words anchored the editorial page during the most tumultuous years of the civil rights movement in the South. With his mentor and best friend, Ralph McGill, Patterson used his platform to persuade his fellow white Southerners that on matters of race they were wrong, and that if they changed, the sky would not fall.

“I see what you’re trying to do,” one reader accused. “You’re trying to make us think that we’re better than we are.”

Eugene C. Patterson, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his editorials , died Saturday evening in St. Petersburg, FL. He was 89.

Mr. Patterson was born on Oct. 15, 1923, in Valdosta to a schoolteacher mother and a bank cashier father. The family moved from Nicholls to Douglas and wound up during the Depression on a small farm near Adel .

“I toiled as a boy,” wrote Mr. Patterson, “behind a plow drawn by two mules across 50 acres of isolation….I grew up hard there. We milked cows, butchered hogs and steers, hoed peanuts and pulled corn and picked cotton and cropped tobacco.”

In 1940, he completed junior college at North Georgia College at Dahlonega, where he edited the school paper. He earned a journalism degree from the University of Georgia in 1943, and enlisted in the Army. He fought from Normandy through the Battle of the Bulge and then across the Rhine with General George S. Patton’s Third Army.

By all accounts, Mr. Patterson fought bravely, earning Silver and Bronze stars. By his own account, he fired his weapons reluctantly and felt the loss of his comrades deeply. Until his death, he evoked World War II as the formative influence of his life. It offered the first escape from the segregationist South and let him see, in a foreign setting, where race hatred inevitably led.

In 1946, Mr. Patterson headed for the nearest newspaper office in a newly bought suit. He went from Army captain to cub reporter in a single day, launching his journalism career on the pages of the Daily Telegram in Temple, Texas.

A year later he returned to his native Georgia and joined the Macon Telegraph as a city hall reporter. His career took off when the United Press recruited him to work in its Atlanta bureau. From there he became UP bureau chief in Columbia, S. C., where he met his wife, Sue Carter, then a reporter for the Columbia Record.

The UP sent Mr. Patterson to New York, where he sharpened his competitive instincts. In 1953 Patterson became bureau chief for the UP in London. It was from there that Mr. Patterson issued his most famous news lead after a noted American author crashed his plane in Uganda and was feared dead: “Ernest Hemingway came out of the jungle today carrying a bunch of bananas and a bottle of gin.”

All that experience served as a prelude for what Mr. Patterson encountered in Atlanta from 1956 to 1968, during what is now understood as the classic period of the civil rights movement.

Mr. Patterson served as executive editor of both the Journal and Constitution from 1956 to 1960, when he succeeded Ralph McGill as editor of the Constitution. McGill was promoted to publisher.

In an era of political assassinations and church bombings, Southern editorial writers who challenged segregation needed courage. Atlanta Mayor William B. Hartsfield advised Patterson not to worry about the anonymous cowards who threatened him with hate mail: “It’s the ones you don’t hear from that you have to worry about.” Patterson’s equalizer was not a pistol, but a ball-peen hammer hidden in a desk drawer. He never had to wield it, but admitted having, on two occasions, nudged open the drawer.

His daughter, Mary Fausch , remembers how she once phoned her father in a panic because the family dog, Lizzy, had been shot by strangers. “I know who did this, Daddy,” Mary told her father. “It’s the people who are angry about the things you are writing.” The indomitable pup lived to the age of 16 — even with a bullet lodged near her heart.

Patterson was known for his red-hair, his military bearing and his Irish tenor voice that could belt out “Danny Boy” or “Amazing Grace” with spine-chilling clarity. But it was his literary sensibility and editorial voice — part McGill, part Hemingway, part Faulkner — that made him a beacon of progressive reform in the segregationist South.

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