In 1958, a synagogue was bombed. An editor's response won a Pulitzer — and his words ring eerily true today

On Oct. 14, 1958, racial terrorists bombed Atlanta’s largest Jewish synagogue. The next day, Ralph McGill, editor of The Atlanta Constitution, fired off an editorial that won him a Pulitzer Prize and holds up a mirror for our own times.

The mass murders at the synagogue in Pittsburgh have forced us once again to find the words to express our deep sorrow and outrage. “There are no words” is a refrain, repeated by survivors, family members and citizens devastated by an act of hatred and intolerance.

There is another refrain in another song on the same playlist: “Words matter.” That phrase is used frequently in reference to President Donald Trump and what are often called his “incendiary” tweets and speeches, his demonizing of political enemies and his scapegoating of certain ethnic groups, especially immigrants. The argument goes that while the president did not pull the trigger, his language and political tactics have created a culture in which such acts could take place.

As someone who has studied the work of newspaper editorialists during the Civil Rights movement, this narrative has a familiar ring. Each day, when I walk into the Poynter Institute, I see, right outside the entrance, a marble plaque inscribed with the First Amendment. As I make my way into the building, I pass a framed piece of calligraphy, an editorial written by my mentor Gene Patterson, editor of The Atlanta Constitution from 1960 to 1968. He wrote a signed column, many on civil rights, every day for eight years.

His most famous — which has received new attention in the last few days — was titled “A Flower for the Graves.” It was written in haste and tears after the September 1963 bombing of a Birmingham Baptist Church, which killed four young girls in a Sunday school class. Even in the segregationist South of the 1960s, it was an act so horrific as to be thought unimaginable.

Patterson could write with compassion for those struggling with social change in the South, but could also write with passion.

A Negro mother wept in the street Sunday morning in front of a Baptist Church in Birmingham. In her hand she held a shoe, one shoe, from the foot of her dead child. We hold that shoe with her.

Every one of us in the white South holds that small shoe in his hand.

It is too late to blame the sick criminals who handled the dynamite. The FBI and the police can deal with that kind. The charge against them is simple. They killed four children.

Only we can trace the truth, Southerner — you and I. We broke those children’s bodies.

What follows is a list of indictments against those who created a culture of death, especially those who go on electing “politicians who heat the kettles of hate.”

I edited a collection of Gene’s columns and before his passing would appear with him at public events. He could never bring himself to read the column, and left it to me. I always considered it an honor to have his words pass through my lips — though with a harsh New York accent, rather than a smooth but determined Georgia one.

I have written before on how Gene, when it came to his editorial voice, had an amazing range. At this fractured moment in our political history, it might be an important voice to study. In an encouraging voice, he could make the case that the South could achieve social change without the sky falling. In the voice of an Old Testament prophet, he could look hatred and cruelty in the eye and name it.

The reason we can learn this voice is because Gene himself learned it from his own best friend and mentor, Ralph McGill. Gene and Ralph were like Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, two towering opinion shapers on the same team, two Pulitzer winners, two progressives on matters of race who admitted to being too slow to the starting gate.

On Oct. 15, 1958, seven years before the Birmingham church bombing, and almost exactly 60 years before the murders in Pittsburgh, Ralph McGill was informed by his wife that the Temple, the largest synagogue in Atlanta, had been bombed. He went to his office and in 20 minutes produced an editorial. When I reread it this morning, it shook me, as it must have shaken Gene Patterson and a community of readers.

Ralph McGill, editor of the Atlanta Constitution, shown on March 30, 1959. (AP Photo)
Ralph McGill, editor of the Atlanta Constitution, shown on March 30, 1959. (AP Photo)

It is informative — and tragic — that the events and the issues described in the column have such currency. Even McGill’s discussion of Confederate symbols retains its resonance. Please read, learn and rededicate yourself to speaking truth to power.

A Church, A School 
By Ralph McGill
Atlanta Constitution
Oct. 15, 1958

Dynamite in great quantity Sunday ripped a beautiful temple of worship in Atlanta. It followed hard on the heels of a like destruction of a handsome high school at Clinton, Tennessee.  

The same rabid, mad-dog minds were, without question, behind both. They also are the source of previous bombings in Florida, Alabama and South Carolina. The school house and the church are the targets of diseased, hate-filled minds.

Let us face the facts.

This is a harvest. It is the crop of things sown.

It is the harvest of defiance of courts and the encouragement of citizens to defy law on the parts of many Southern politicians. It will be grimly humorous if certain state attorneys general issue statements of regret. And it will be quite a job for some editors, columnists and commentators, who have been saying that our courts have no jurisdiction and that the people should refuse to accept their authority, now to deplore.

It is not possible to preach lawlessness and restrict it.

To be sure, none said go bomb a Jewish temple or a school.

But let it be understood that when leadership in high places in any degree fails to support constituted authority, it opens the gates to all those who wish to take law in their hands.  

There will be, to be sure, the customary act of the careful drawing aside of skirts on the part of those in high places.

“How awful,” they will exclaim. “How terrible. Something must be done.”

But the record stands. The extremists of the citizens’ councils, the political leaders who in terms violent and inflammatory have repudiated their oaths and stood against due process of law have helped unloose this flood of hate and bombing.

This, too, is a harvest of those so-called Christian ministers who have chosen to preach hate instead of compassion. Let them now find pious words and raise their hands in deploring the bombing of a synagogue.

You do not preach and encourage hatred for the Negro and hope to restrict it to that field. It is an old, old story. It is one repeated over and over again in history. When the wolves of hate are loosed on one people, then no one is safe.

Hate and lawlessness by those who lead release the yellow rats and encourage the crazed and neurotic who print and distribute the hate pamphlets, who shrieked that Franklin Roosevelt was a Jew; who denounced the Supreme Court as being Communist and controlled by Jewish influences.  

This series of bombings is the harvest, too, of something else.

One of those connected with the bombing telephoned a news service early Sunday morning to say the job would be done. It was to be committed, he said, by the Confederate Underground.

The Confederacy and the men who led it are revered by millions. Its leaders returned to the Union and urged that the future be committed to build a stronger America. This was particularly true of General Robert E. Lee. Time after time he urged his students at Washington University to forget the War Between the States and to help build a greater and stronger union.

But for too many years now we have seen the Confederate flag and the emotions of that great war become the property of men not fit to tie the shoes of those who fought for it. Some of these have been merely childish and immature. Others have perverted and commercialize the flag by making the Stars and Bars, and the Confederacy itself, a symbol of hate and bombings.

For a long time now it has been needful for all Americans to stand up and be counted on the side of law and the due process of law even when to do so goes against personal beliefs and emotions.  It is late. But there is yet time.

 

Written in 1958,  published again in 2018.

What can we learn?

Is there yet time?   

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    Roy Peter Clark

    Roy Peter Clark has taught writing at Poynter to students of all ages since 1979. He has served the Institute as its first full-time faculty member, dean, vice-president, and senior scholar.

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