Articles about "Eugene Patterson"


The short shelf life of today’s heroes, in sports and in journalism

Michael Wilbon was on ESPN radio discussing Lance Armstrong and Manti Te’o when he posed this rhetorical question: “What is the shelf life of a hero today?”

An excellent question: What is the shelf life of heroes in a world overflowing with instant communications, the need for instant gratification, and instant (and too often bitter, obscene and mean-spirited) rebuttals?

The talk show conversation and Wilbon’s question registered a stronger reaction than it may have on other days; it came at a time when I was thinking about one of my personal heroes, Gene Patterson, at a time when the news of his death was still raw.

There was a time when the answer seemed so simple, in the long ago years when we cheered for Johnny Lujack, the All America quarterback and the Fighting Irish on Saturday afternoon; when we listened on the radio to Joe Louis’ latest victory or President Roosevelt’s fireside chats, or in theaters watched Sugar Ray Robinson, who may have had some flaws outside the ring but was unflawed inside the ropes.

Or when we lived vicariously through Felix “Doc” Blanchard, Mr. Inside for Army, who graduated from high school with my oldest brother. Or certainly when we tuned into KMOX from St. Louis and visualized the quiet man Stan Musial crouched at the plate, a cobra in baseball knickers ready to strike. Or when we first saw a Brookhaven, Miss., high school kid named Lance Alworth and realized we had witnessed unmatched athletic talent of any generation, or a Louisiana youth named Billy Cannon.

And for someone who grew up working on my dad’s weekly newspaper, Hap Glaudi and Bill Keefe, New Orleans sports columnists, Turner Catledge, who also started his journey on a Mississippi weekly and rose to become executive editor of The New York Times, Hodding Carter, the courageous Mississippi Delta editor, and my dad provided enough day dreams about the future to keep me going.

But most of all, there were the heroes who went off to wars:

  • My Godmother, who served as a nurse in World War Two and came home an Army major.
  • Her brothers, one in the Navy and one in the Marines, who, one or the other, fought in and survived every Pacific battle, from Pearl Harbor to VJ Day.
  • My cousin Donald, who was more of a brother and who is buried in Normandy.
  • Five brothers who wore various uniforms and served during various wars
  • And so many more from that small town we shared.

Then as we aged and became more selective of those we admired, mentors and colleagues filled a number of the slots. My thank-you card is jammed with the names of the men and women who served as teachers, who enriched my career with their contributions, who gave unselfishly of their wisdom — mentors such as Gene Patterson, Pulitzer Prize winner, an officer under General Patton, an editor of courage, whose moral compass always pointed in the right direction.

He is gone, but the lessons he left to so many of us who admired him will live on. He seemed to always know what to do and what to say when you needed a guardian angel. You never had to ask. And he was an editor to the end, even in his hospice bed, cutting a half-million words from the Old Testament and publishing it through Amazon. “I always wanted to read it completely, but I never could get through it, “ he told me. “Now I can.”

Hearing him speak on subject after subject was pure joy. Perhaps another friend put it best when he said that after listening to Gene one night talking about journalism, the Constitution, ethics, Broadway, the Bible, and also filling the evening with laughter, he felt he had graduated to the big boys’ table. I felt that way every time we interacted.

Gene would reject the label of hero. But he was one to me, as were and are a number of others who have acted and often sacrificed to make a difference in people’s lives.

So maybe the answer to Wilbon’s question is simple after all: Be selective and sparing about whom you put on the shelf in the first place. Then you won’t have to ask how long they will remain there. Read more

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4 lessons for media leaders from Martin Luther King Jr. and Gene Patterson

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.

Gene Patterson (far left) and Martin Luther King Jr. (far right) shared the stage for “Law Day U.S.A.”

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. Read more

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Flashback: Martin Luther King Jr.’s letter to southern editor Gene Patterson

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.”

On May 1, 1965, Eugene Patterson and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., appeared together on a panel at “Law Day U.S.A.” at the University of Pennsylvania. Read what King said about Patterson.
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Gene Patterson’s final thoughts on journalism: ‘Get over the pain, new stuff happens’

In late November 2012, Eugene Patterson, who died Saturday, prepared his thoughts about journalism in advance of a visit from an old friend. His edited reflections are reproduced here, direct from Patterson’s IBM Wheelwriter typewriter.

Journalists get to originate, validate and illuminate the real news if they carry forward the character of their calling.

How they make the good stuff pay will follow the quality as it always has. Technology’s shift of news to new money models still leaves the key to the vault lying in the gold cache of character. That character leaves journalists to prospect for truth.

Journalists breaking out of the wreckage of old news delivery ways carry in their bones known elements of the character which, in handling news, needs to be.

Be truthful; if it hurts, just say ow.

Be fair; let all speak.

Be ethical; if it feels wrong, it is.

Be careful; get facts right.

Be skeptical; ask, what’s missing here?

Be above conflict; if in doubt, don’t.

Be beyond price; fear no threatener, favor no pal.

Be an example of integrity; people know it when you show it.

Be vigilant; to defend the First Amendment, deliver on its purpose: question authority; watch the empowered; right wrongs.

And be easy in the going; clasp the comical, and dance it around the floor.

We aren’t just saying the Sunday school lessons here while the church burns. We’re fighting the fire. Salvage the steeple, reshingle roof that’s left, and keep a lot of kneelers. Start the annex and pay the preacher frugally to match the faint rattle of the current collection plate. Cut your sackcloth to fit the pattern. Believe in gladsome days to come.

News work in the new era is bound to ask more and pay less until new revenue can rise.

The lower-cost newsroom is likely to be limited to a compact cadre of the expert few, directing a force of carefully chosen free lancers. They used to be called stringers. They had day jobs but earned a little extra by calling in the happenings in their places. They gained hometown stature as correspondents for bigtown media, and their bigtown editors tapped their local knowledge while professionally shaping their stories. The editors verified facts and scrapped junk. This certified it as community journalism, not prattle. Cost was a pittance compared to the expense of fulltime staffers. An elite few of staffers will still parachute in to cover the big ones. But day-to-day expense for people must come down until revenues can revive. Coverage can be kept up by the time-tried means at hand. Giving it up is not an option. Among smaller tragedies, that would leave nothing for the aggregators to curate.

Editors looking to whisk up savings are already syndicating their staff writers’ accounts of events within their states. Thus they cover more of the distant stories at less cost by swapping and sharing their staffs’ work. Sorry, sports: that includes you. For a little competitive pride lost, a lot of sinew in news reach balloons.

Scratching for revenue at newspapers extends through advertising and circulation to the pressroom where commercial printing may put idle iron to use. The country weekly of my Depression boyhood printed individual labels for farmers paying to paste their names on their half-gallon tin cans of syrup when they boiled up a kettlefull at cane grinding time.

Back at the ranch, all of this still leaves some bunks open for the skilled hands who can saddle up and sit the bronc of news that bolts bucking out of the chute daily.

For sure there’ll be hunters (to investigate wrongs), gatherers (to harvest the hay and bale it), explainers (to answer the reasons why), and commenters (to argue for a verdict). They can’t be afforded if they’re numerous. So the few will have to be good.

There’s no room for the ordinary in the future news medium that earns dominance in its community, whatever its delivery system looks like.

Arid acres of jump page stuff will now be continued to a link after a couple of paragraphs. Explanatory journalism is the new spot news. Wired readers are already up to their who-where’s in what happened. They want to know why and how come, reliably. That’s what they’ll buy, along with sensible comment so nimble they’ll eagerly make it regular reading for pleasure. Think Krugman, Dowd, Nocera, and certainly Gail Collins, as you’ll know unless you’re strapped to the roof of a car somebody’s driving to Canada.

Commit to signed columns. They connect a community to a living person, not an inanimate institution. The column is a daily hello, like its view or not. Its mortal sin is to bore. Write a yawner, you’re out of here. Writers of explanatory stories can rival comment columnists for readers’ favor if they excel. Call up personal journalism to reach the reader’s answering heart. Keep arm’s length from the conniver but let the reader come in close.

Opportunities will be ample when the press re-casts this page of its history. Get over the pain. New stuff happens.

We’ve crossed the edge of the information world before and found the horizon still beckons. The fearful saw the end of printed news first in radio, then in television, and here we are, still around answering the new alarms. Open mike talk shows, game shows, gossip and gore blew through before tweets, texts, posts and careless blogs gained primacy at wasting time.

Serious and saleable handling of news is feeling its way slowly but surely to modern means of delivery that will pay the cost of newsgathering. That’s inevitable because it’s essential. And the new product worth delivering has to carry forward its old character whose commandments are graven in the printer’s stone.

This statement by Gene Patterson lives in the courtyard of The Poynter Institute.
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Journalists remember the late Eugene Patterson

Legendary newspaper editor Eugene Patterson died Saturday night at 89. As former editor of the Atlanta Constitution and the St. Petersburg Times (now the Tampa Bay Times), Patterson is remembered for his journalism excellence, his leadership, and his civil rights advocacy. Journalists who knew him shared their recollections with Poynter Sunday morning:

Eugene Roberts

Eugene Roberts, former executive editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer:

I think he was one of the most important ingredients during the civil rights era, in keeping the south somewhat in balance. Without people like Gene Patterson, when he was editor of the Atlanta Constitution and his colleague Ralph McGill, I think the resistance in the South could have gotten even more out of hand than it was. Patterson was a confident voice for humanity and sanity during a very tense era in the South. He had this almost incredible magic within him.

His piece about the little girls who were killed in the Birmingham church bombing is probably, I would say, one of the great moments in American commentary.

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Former editor, Poynter chairman Eugene Patterson dies at 89

Tampa Bay Times | Atlanta Journal-Constitution | Associated Press | The Washington Post | The New York Times
Eugene Patterson died of complications from cancer Saturday night. He was 89.

For much of the 1960s Patterson edited the Atlanta Constitution, where he frequently wrote about the Civil Rights Movement. His most famous column was called “A Flower for the Graves,” published after the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala. was bombed in 1963. The column, which was read that evening by Walter Cronkite on the “CBS Evening News,” urged white Southerners “not lay the blame on some brutal fool who didn’t know any better” but on themselves. Read more

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