Pulitzer winner Eugene Patterson, voice on civil rights, dies at 89

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ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (AP) — Eugene Patterson, a Pulitzer Prize-winning editor and columnist whose impassioned words helped draw national attention to the civil rights movement as it unfolded across the South, has died at 89.

Mr. Patterson, who helped fellow whites to understand the problems of racial discrimination, died Saturday evening in Florida after complications from prostate cancer, according to B.J. Phillips, a family spokeswoman.

Mr. Patterson was editor of the Atlanta Constitution from 1960 to 1968, winning a Pulitzer Prize in 1967 for editorial writing. His famous column of Sept, 16, 1963, about the Birmingham, Ala., church bombing that killed four girls — “A Flower for the Graves” — was considered so moving that he was asked by Walter Cronkite to read it nationally on the “CBS Evening News.”

“A Negro mother wept in the street Sunday morning in front of a Baptist Church in Birmingham,” Mr. Patterson began his column. “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. … We who go on electing politicians who heat the kettles of hate. … (The bomber) feels right now that he has been a hero. He is only guilty of murder. He thinks he has pleased us. We of the white South who know better are the ones who must take a harsher judgment.”

“It was the high point of my life,” Mr. Patterson later said in a June 2006 interview from his home in St. Petersburg. “It was the only time I was absolutely sure I was right. They were not telling the truth to people, and we tried to change that.”

Mr. Patterson also spoke of what he called his good fortune to work for the Atlanta newspaper and an “enlightened” leadership that encouraged his work.

“We were rather rare editors in the South at that time,” Mr. Patterson said of himself and Constitution Publisher Ralph McGill. Mr. Patterson worked under Mr. McGill, himself a Pulitzer winner in 1959, and then succeeded him at the helm of the Constitution four years later.

Editor Kevin G. Riley at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution called MR. Patterson’s contributions to the newspaper, Atlanta and the field of journalism “enormous.”

“We benefit still from his work and legacy,” MR. Riley told The Associated Press via email.

In 1968, Mr. Patterson joined The Washington Post and served for three years as its managing editor, playing a central role in the publication of the Pentagon Papers. After leaving the Post he spent a year teaching at Duke University.

He became editor of The St. Petersburg Times and its Washington publication, Congressional Quarterly, in 1972 and was later chief executive officer of The St. Petersburg Times Co. Under Mr. Patterson’s leadership, the Times won two Pulitzer Prizes and became known as one of the top newspapers in the country.

Times owner Nelson Poynter, who died in 1978, chose Mr. Patterson to ensure his controlling stock in the newspaper company was used to fund a school for journalists then called the Modern Media Insititute. It is now known as the Poynter Institute, which owns the Tampa Bay Times (formerly The St. Petersburg Times).

“A person — one person — had to be entrusted with fulfilling what Mr. Poynter intended,” said Roy Peter Clark, the school’s first faculty member. “He had to be totally trustworthy, so Mr. Poynter chose Mr. Patterson.”

Mr. Patterson retired from the Times and Poynter in 1988.

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