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

August 18, 2015
Category: Uncategorized
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. Patterson had served as a tank commander under Gen. George S. Pattonduring World War II, fought bravely, and once aspired to become a general.  As a journalist, he flew on helicopter missions in Vietnam and admired the soldiers who fought there, soldiers of all races.

He considered Bond a radical and propagandist on the war, a figure whose anti-American rhetoric would damage the cause of social justice and racial equality.

The big difference between Patterson and the demagogues in the state legislature was a commitment to the bedrock principles of democracy:  freedom of expression and the rule of law.

On January 14, 1966, Patterson wrote: “While condemning the motives of this country is one thing, dissent with U.S. policy in Vietnam is entirely legitimate.  I simply dissent with the dissenters, and most emphatically with those who seem to feel there’s a valid connection between defense of Negroes at home and surrender of peasants in South Vietnam.”

In other words, Bond may be dead wrong, but he was elected by the voters, deserves to be seated, and can say whatever he damn well pleases.

The stubbornness of the legislature brought predictable results, a rebuke by the courts.  On February 12, 1966, Patterson regrets that it had come to that:

“Net yield of the Legislature’s refusal to seat Julian Bond is bitter fruit.  Bond’s dubious views are generally overlooked and he is hailed as a martyr throughout the world.  Georgia’s progressive efforts are overshadowed and the state is widely stigmatized as a political primitive.

“For the first time in the nation’s history the judiciary has asserted the right to judge a legislature’s decisions with respect to its membership qualifications.

“Racial divisions are widened.

“Confusion of issues is deepened.

“….Most of this mess would not exist if the Legislature had censured Bond to its heart’s content but then had defended his right to be wrong-headed and put him in his seat.”

Out of this controversy, Bond would become an international figure and Patterson would win a Pulitzer Prize.

Patterson’s critics have claimed he was “slow” in coming around on Vietnam.  He eventually plead guilty, saying that it wasn’t until he met protesting war veterans in Washington, D.C., in the early 70s, that he changed his personal and editorial views.

Almost 50 years later, it looks as if on matters of civil rights Bond was right and Patterson was right.  On matters of foreign policy and the war in Vietnam, Bond was right and Patterson was wrong.

But there remains a kind of honorable edge to Patterson’s wrong-headedness.  In words and actions, he gave practical expression to Voltaire’s famous aphorism:  “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

For Patterson this defense of speech and other freedoms was not abstract.  He put his life on the line in combat against the Nazis in World War II.  He defended racial change in the South and spit in the face of the terrorism of the KKK.

I have no account of Patterson and Bond’s interactions after these events transpired.  But by their words and actions across a half-century, I see them as brothers of a more just, more progressive South.