His words still stand, bigger than the bigotry
© St. Petersburg Times
The subject was race, a continuing American problem, despite years of progress since the 1960s when Gene Patterson was editor of the Atlanta Constitution.
Patterson, who became editor and then chairman of the St. Petersburg Times in the 1970s and 1980s, was honored in Washington, D.C., this week for a new book of columns he wrote in the 1960s as the South struggled to deal with dismantling a segregated way of life.
The Changing South of Gene Patterson, published by the University Press of Florida, is not just a repetition of daily columns he wrote between 1960 and 1968. It comes with a chapter of historical insight from Raymond Arsenault, a history professor at the University of South Florida, and journalistic insight from Roy Peter Clark, vice president of the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg.
On Wednesday night the three writers braved a Washington blizzard, in a city that does not know how to handle snow, for a standing room only seminar at the National Press Club. Many in the audience were not born when Patterson won a Pulitzer Prize for writing those columns that challenged the racist political tide of the era.
Have we changed?
It was a question from the father of a young woman who lives in a Southern city where blacks and whites have reverted to very segregated lives. Yes, Patterson said. Children in some areas may still be going to segregated schools, but the law does not require the separation of whites and blacks. But race remains the most important issue in the nation, Patterson argues.
The Southern politicians who fled the Democratic Party after President Lyndon B. Johnson pushed through the Civil Rights Act in 1964 are the Republicans of today. But these Republicans are no longer overt supporters of racism. They practice a brand of conservatism that is all about abortion, guns and God.
Too many political leaders have yet to learn "leadership can't always be about winning," Patterson says. "It's hard to convince a politician to take a position that will defeat him"
They need to learn that their place in history is secured by doing what is right, Patterson added. He used former Florida Gov. LeRoy Collins as an example. Collins opposed segregation when he was governor in the 1950s "and couldn't get elected dogcatcher" afterward. When he ran for the U.S. Senate in 1968, his opponents circulated pictures of Collins marching beside Martin Luther King Jr. at Selma, Ala. Few knew or cared that Collins had been sent to Selma by President Johnson to help calm the uproar. Collins lost to Republican Ed Gurney.
One thing that made Patterson successful in his time was his ability to write about human beings in the midst of the struggle. His best-known column took a look at the 1963 Birmingham church bombing that took the lives of four little girls. Walter Cronkite had Patterson read it on the nightly news.
Patterson took his readers to the scene where a mother wept in the streets holding the bloody shoe of her dead little girl. "Every one of us in the white South holds that small shoe in his hand," Patterson noted.
The white South elected race-hating politicians without trying to silence "the mean and little men who have their n----- jokes," he wrote.
That kind of writing didn't make Patterson's life easy. His detractors shot a bullet through his front window and put a bullet in Lizzie, his black Labrador dog. But Patterson, his wife, Sue, and daughter, Mary, survived. So did Lizzie, who lived another 18 years.
A young congressional aide in Patterson's audience said it best.
"Thank you for who you are and what you did," he said. Later when I asked for his name, he declined, fearful that speaking out on the subject of race might endanger his job.
He makes it obvious we still have miles to go.
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