Eugene Patterson

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The Journalist and the Activist: the legacies of Julian Bond and Gene Patterson

Julian Bond of the Georgia state legislature and civil rights leader is seen in 1968. (AP Photo)

Julian Bond of the Georgia state legislature and civil rights leader is seen in 1968. (AP Photo)

A half century ago, Julian Bond fought for civil rights and against the Vietnam War. Bond is now dead, but his legacy lives on.

So does that of the former newspaper editor and Poynter chairman Gene Patterson, who became Bond’s defender and critic.

A young charismatic activist, Bond was elected to the Georgia state legislature in 1965. His antiwar rhetoric and support for the Negro cause won him few admirers in state government, and the legislators refused to seat him.

As editor of the Atlanta Constitution from 1960-68, Patterson had emerged as a leader on civil rights and social justice, but he favored American intervention in Vietnam. Read more

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Why you should know the work of Claude Sitton – reporter

Claude Sitton

Claude Sitton

I noted with sadness the death of a great American journalist, Claude Sitton, who encouraged me early in my career, and who was a good friend of the Poynter Institute. The giants of the Civil Rights movement are passing from this life. Their witness must be remembered and celebrated, a legacy that should inspire us to re-double our efforts to commit our journalism to the cause of social justice.

I was introduced to Sitton by another great Southern journalist, Eugene Patterson, who hired me in 1977 to coach the writers at the St. Petersburg Times. From 1960 to 1968 Gene served as editor of the Atlanta Constitution under the leadership of his mentor Ralph McGill. One day I was having lunch with Gene and the conversation went something like this:

“Gene, you know I’ve heard so much about the columns you wrote in Atlanta.  Read more

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How the Southern press foiled FBI’s attempt to smear MLK

Is it possible that we have to thank the white Southern press of the 1960s – even the segregationist press – for its restraint in resisting FBI attempts to smear the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., with sexual scandal?

That question is raised, but not sufficiently developed, in a Nov. 11 New York Times piece written by Yale historian Beverly Gage. She discovered in the files of FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover an uncensored draft of what has been called the “suicide letter.”  The letter was part of an elaborate effort to discredit King, who was about to receive the Nobel Peace Prize.

Based on wire taps and audio tapes, the one-page letter, supposedly sent by an outraged black citizen, described in the vivid language of the day examples of King’s marital infidelities and sexual adventures.  Read more

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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. 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. 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. Read more

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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. Read more

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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. 

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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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