Originally published January 19, 2003, this essay by Roy Peter Clark describes the relationship between Eugene Patterson, who died Jan. 12 at the age of 89, and Martin Luther King Jr., whose life and legacy is celebrated today.
On May 10, 1967, Martin Luther King Jr. wrote a personal letter, unpublished until now, to Gene Patterson, the editor of the Atlanta Constitution. Patterson had just won a Pulitzer Prize for his columns supporting racial justice and civil rights. King, who had won a Nobel Peace Prize three years earlier, was magnanimous in his praise: “I am sure that all people of good will in general and all Atlantans in particular are very proud of you and your magnificent achievements.”
This correspondence between the black preacher and the white editor surfaced during preparation of a new book on journalism and civil rights. The exchange of letters serves as a mirror and a model for our times: a mirror in the way it reflects upon the themes of war, justice, and race; a model in the example of two men conversing across race and political difference in the search of mutual understanding.
As editor of the Constitution, Patterson wrote a column that anchored the editorial page every day for nine years, from 1960 to 1968. Carrying a torch of white Southern liberalism handed to him by his mentor and predecessor Ralph McGill, Patterson used the drumbeat of his daily column to persuade his white Southern kinfolk that they must change on matters of race.
It can be said, with respect, that Dr. King was wrong about “all Atlantans” being proud of Patterson’s Pulitzer. Patterson well understood the dangers inherent in his progressive position. Family members were harassed at home and at school as “nigger lovers.” For security, he kept a ball-peen hammer near his typewriter.
In the course of the tumultuous 1960s, Patterson was emboldened by the words and actions of the early civil rights leaders. He read King’s Letter from the Birmingham Jail and quoted the preacher to make the case that black citizens should no longer have to wait for basic rights or common courtesy. To read Patterson’s columns, more than 3,200 in all, is to relive the daily human and political drama, with King as the protagonist, that we now call the civil rights movement.
On August 28, 1963, Patterson was standing at the Lincoln Memorial, notebook in hand, recording the historic cadences of King’s speech before 200,000 marchers.
“In a few impassioned and triumphant moments,” wrote Patterson, “below the great seated statue of Abraham Lincoln, King swept the marchers to a new vision of the Negro’s destiny in America by praising and celebrating America, and lifting their eyes from the ‘valley of despair’ to purple mountain majesties.
“I have a dream,” he boomed again and again, and each dream showed him liberty and pursuit of happiness for all races of Americans soon, from the cliffs of the Rockies to the slopes of the Alleghenies, from Stone Mountain in Georgia to the broad Mississippi. “I have a dream,” he roared, weeping, and his dream stretched from sea to shining sea, and all the way from the speaker’s stand at the Lincoln Memorial to the far end of a crowd that stretched to the Washington Monument.”
By 1966 young black leaders, such as Julian Bond, began turning their attention to the war in Vietnam, equating oppression of the poor in America with military oppression of the Vietnamese people. Patterson had fought in Patton’s army in World War II, contemplated a military career, reported from the front lines in Vietnam, and admired Lyndon Johnson for his leadership on civil rights. He found this new view of American foreign policy offensive, and he said so in columns critical of Dr. King.
King’s letter to Patterson addresses the issue at some length: “I did not come to my position on the war in Vietnam without great soul-searching and long moments of reflection and meditation.I came to the conclusion that this war is so unjust that as a clergyman and a concerned humanitarian, I had to take a stand against it.”
He then quotes 19th century preacher William Morley Punshon: “On some positions cowardice asks the question, is it safe? Expediency asks the question, is it politic? Vanity asks the question, is it popular, but conscience asks the question, is it right?”
King writes, “This is where I find myself today. I have come to the conclusion that the ultimate measure of a man is not where he finds himself in moments of comfort and moments of convenience, but where he finds himself in moments of challenge and moments of controversy.”
With his letter to Patterson, King sends the editor a pamphlet he had written on Vietnam along with an autographed copy of his new book “Where Do We Go From Here?” King invites Patterson to meet for an off-the-record conversation to discuss war and civil rights. Patterson responds with humility and gratitude. “Just as you know my difference with you is a sincere one,” wrote Patterson, “I want you to know that I consider your position also to be the expression of a clear heart.”
Patterson did not tell King that, on two occasions, the FBI had approached the editor with information designed to embarrass the preacher. Go down to this airport, said one agent, and you’ll catch King with a woman who’s not his wife. In an oral history of the civil rights movement, Patterson described to Howell Raines, now executive editor of The New York Times, what he told the FBI agent before he showed him the door: “Look, we’re not a peephole journal. We don’t print this kind of stuff on any man. Furthermore, I’m shocked that you would be spying on an American citizen, whether it’s Dr. King or some other person because if it can happen to him, it can happen to all of us.”
The proposed meeting between King and Patterson never took place. Within a year, King was dead, felled by an assassin’s bullet. Two days later, on April 6, 1968, Patterson wrote, “Martin Luther King, Jr. is home now, forever. There will not be another King. He introduced us whites to our consciences. Then he paid with his life and left us here. Gone now is the convenience of being pressed by him to do what is right. If his life and death failed to move us to take our own worst natures in hand, to forswear the cruelty and complacency of the past, and to build here one nation in brotherhood because we believe in it, then he failed. He could do no more in his 39 years than show us the way.”
On the day of Dr. King’s funeral, Patterson pressed through the crowds and was ushered into the service through the back door of the Ebenezer Baptist Church.
He wrote: “We will not even now see the overwhelming injustice we continue to visit upon these people who still believe in us unless Dr. King’s death teaches us that we must hereafter be among them, and know them, and take their hands and walk with them as men whose friendship will ennoble us. Their faith in us runs deeper than the faith we have shown in ourselves, and we ought to be deeply ashamed of the cruelties we offered in return for such trust and love. Jobs, housing, education are only programs. Knowing and loving our neighbors is the needed memorial to Dr. King. And that is so easy, when you are among them.”
The final paragraph of King’s letter continues to speak to Patterson, now 79, as one great Georgia writer expresses himself to another with no expectation that it be published some 35 years later: “It is my great hope that the dark clouds of war will soon pass away and the deep fog of misunderstanding will be lifted from our fear-drenched world, and in some not too distant tomorrow the radiant stars of peace and brotherhood will shine over our great nation and the world. Sincerely, Martin Luther King, Jr.”