Martin Luther King Day 2013 occurs a day after memorial services for Eugene Patterson, an editorial voice of conscience at the Atlanta Constitution during King’s crusade for justice. Patterson died Saturday, January 12. Services were in St. Petersburg, Fla., where he had been CEO of the St. Petersburg Times company (now Tampa Bay Times) and chairman of the board of The Poynter Institute.
I thought the conversation would be about journalism and The Poynter Institute when my husband and I met with Gene Patterson at the Institute last March. Although he had been diagnosed with cancer and friends knew the end might be near, Gene looked as a robust as ever. Our chat in the Patterson Collection of Poynter’s Library lingered on civil rights, a man named Cook, another named King and on two men’s memories of war. Four lessons from the conversation offer advice for news media leaders today.
Get to know the whole community
As a journalist at the Atlanta Constitution, Patterson followed his mentor, Executive Editor Ralph McGill, in taking a stand against racial injustice. Gene said he and his family were ostracized by many whites but quietly embraced by the Jewish community of Atlanta. He and his wife, Sue, took tentative steps across racial lines in attending meetings and informal gatherings in the black community, something that just wasn’t done in the late ’50s and early ’60s.
“Gradually we would go to black social occasions and they would come to ours,” Patterson said. “We discovered a new class of friends that we had never known before. I was amazed. How in the world had we lived all these years without knowing each other.”
Today we still don’t know each other. Whether in nearby local or distant global communities, we co-exist without knowing each others’ history and customs, points of pride or pain, passions and true problems. We know labels, often labels created by news media. Our divisions aren’t just centered on race and ethnicity, but economic class, religion and other beliefs. The role of news media is to keep a community in conversation with itself. To do that, leaders need to know all of the community.
Engage in difficult conversations
Patterson said a Morehouse College graduate and Atlanta University professor served as a catalyst for conversations on race. Dr. Samuel Dubois Cook introduced him to members of the African American community and facilitated conversations between willing blacks and whites. Years later, after leaving the Atlanta Constitution and then the Washington Post, Patterson accepted a teaching position at Duke University. There to introduce him to a new community was Cook, the first black professor at Duke and later a member of the Board. Cook served 22 years as president of Dillard University in New Orleans before retiring and returning to Atlanta.
In a phone interview, Cook said, “the sensitive issues” raised in his Atlanta University program, The Socratic Dialogue, “drew (participants) to have open discussions on whites and blacks. Remember segregation was not only the law of the land, but also a pattern of behavior.”
Through the Dialogue, Cook met McGill, then Patterson. After the sessions guests would gather at Cook’s house where he and his wife, Sylvia, hosted a post-meeting discussion. During one such session Cook watched two men who hadn’t known each other in deep talks. They were Ralph McGill and a young minister named Martin Luther King, Jr. Cook said the two drifted to Cook’s adjoining study and talked for over an hour.
Our nation is again marked by the inability to talk about difficult topics.
We drift to camps of the like-minded and master the art of avoiding meaningful talks with those who don’t agree with us. News media leaders should lead frank conversations — face-to-face, with one or two people, and in larger forums, taking the time to listen and talk.
Take a stand
It didn’t take long for our conversation in Poynter’s library to engage the two soldiers, Patterson and Hank Dunlap, a Marine veteran of Vietnam. With Patterson’s World War II helmet nearby, they discussed strategies, weapons and the chaos of war. Patterson talked about General George Patton, under whom he served. He said Patton told his troops in tanks to “keep your head up. Don’t ever button up the tank, keep your head up.” To lead you have to stand against attacks and hold your head up.
Patterson stood up for justice. Martin Luther King gave his life for a cause.
On May 1, 1965, Patterson and King appeared on a panel at the University of Pennsylvania. During the conference, King said:
“I am especially pleased to share the platform with the outstanding editor of my home town newspaper. We’re building, as you know, a new south, a greater south, and in a real sense Atlanta is one of the bright and most promising spots of that new south; and I think when historians assess the developments which caused Atlanta to be the bright spot of the south they will have to say that the Atlanta Constitution under the able leadership of Ralph McGill and his successor as editor, Mr. Eugene Patterson, prepared Atlanta and Georgia and, to a large extent, the south for this great social change.
These men have etched across the pages of their newspaper in a most courageous manner words of wisdom, words of truth, and words of reason. I am sure that the whole south and certainly the whole nation is indebted to them for this creative contribution…”
Don’t just make a living. Make a mark.
An evangelist, an educator and an editor. Each one would have been a success by simply carrying out his professional role, but each did so much more. They touched lives and changed society. Each is honored in many ways. In Poynter’s courtyard, there is a stone carved with Patterson’s quote: Don’t just make a living. Make a mark.
It is part of the legacy for news leaders today.
David Shedden contributed to this report. Shedden is head of the Eugene Patterson Library at Poynter.