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. I’d love to read them some day.”
“Ah, you don’t want to see those old things,” he said.
“Do you still have them?”
“Yeah, I got them back at the house.”
He dragged eight large albums out of a bedroom closet. Each one contained a year’s worth of signed columns, many of them on the issues of race and social justice. I carried them back to Poynter, where our archivist David Shedden greeted them as if they were the Dead Sea Scrolls. Dave preserved them, made copies, and gave me a set, more than 3,200 columns in all.
I later marveled at how Gene had written a column every single day for about eight years. “If I tried to write two in one day, the second one never turned out any good,” he told me. Along with Southern historian Ray Arsenault, I curated those columns and published the best in a collection called “The Changing South of Gene Patterson: Journalism and Civil Rights, 1960-1968.”
We celebrated the publication of that book with an event at the Atlanta newspaper where Gene had written his columns. The date was October 28, 2002, and the small, friendly crowd included some remarkable figures. There was the aging former governor Ernest Vandiver, who had led Georgia, however tentatively, through the desegregation of its public universities. There was John Lewis, now a United States Congressman, who loved Gene’s work. Gene deflected any claims of bravery for himself, pointing to Lewis and his fellow protestors as the true heroes of the Civil Rights movement. And there was Claude Sitton, considered by many to be the most influential reporter covering the South during the upheavals of the 1950s and 60s.
Sitton died this week and his courageous work deserves our close attention. Though he lacked Patterson’s personal charisma and elegant prose style, he shared his friend’s energy and vigor, his sense of mission and purpose, and his love for his Southern homeland. Reporting for the New York Times on almost every crisis of the Civil Rights South – its terroristic violence and the courageous movements to defeat it – he created a picture of the world upon which citizens and governments could act.
Gene Patterson’s most famous column concerned the 1963 dynamite bombing of a black church in Birmingham, Alabama, that killed four young girls. Walter Cronkite thought the column so important, especially coming from a white Southerner, that he invited Gene to read it on the CBS Evening News. Titled, “A Flower for the Graves,” it began “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.”
While Gene was writing that column, Claude Sitton was reporting around Birmingham, trying to make sense of one of America’s most terrible days. The headline in the Times on his story read: “Birmingham Bomb Kills 4 Negro Girls in Church; Riots Flare; 2 Boys Slain.”
After an overview of the events across the city, with comments from public officials and police, Sitton concludes his story with this account:
The four girls killed in the blast had just heard Mrs. Ella C. Demand, their teacher, complete the Sunday school lesson for the day. The subject was “The Love That Forgives.”
During the period between the class and an assembly in the main auditorium, they went to the women’s lounge in the basement, at the northeast corner of the church.
The blast occurred at about 10:25 A.M. (12:25 P.M. New York time).
Church members said they found the girls huddled together beneath a pile of masonry debris.
Both parents of each of three of the victims teach in the city’s schools. The dead were identified by University Hospital officials as:
Cynthia Wesley, 14, the only child of Claude A. Wesley, principal of the Lewis Elementary School, and Mrs. Wesley, a teacher there.
Denise McNair, 11, also an only child, whose parents are teachers.
Carole Robertson, 14, whose parents are teachers and whose grandmother, Mrs. Sallie Anderson, is one of the Negro members of a biracial committee established by Mayor Boutwell to deal with racial problems.
Addie Mae Collins, 14, about whom no information was immediately available.
The blast blew gaping holes through walls in the church basement. Floors of offices in the rear of the sanctuary appeared near collapse. Stairways were blocked by splintered window frames, glass and timbers.
Chief Police Inspector W.J. Haley said the impact of the blast indicated that at least 15 sticks of dynamite might have caused it. He said the police had talked to two witnesses who reported having seen a car drive by the church, slow down and then speed away before the blast.
While Patterson was crafting his passionate condemnation of the church bombing (he says he wrote the piece with tears in his eyes), Sitton had the job of delivering the story straight. And while it may read as dispassionate, notice the inventory of details that toll like a bell of justice: the ironic name of the sermon (The Love that Forgives); the image of the girls found in the rubble; the ruins of the church; the size of the bomb; the noble jobs of the parents; and the names of the dead, and their ages. This is how to tell the terrible truth.
All Americans owe a debt of gratitude to the likes of Claude Sitton. By the time I met him, he had become the editor of the Raleigh News & Observer. To see him at a party with his colleagues Gene Patterson, Jack Nelson, and Gene Roberts – by then titans of the newspaper business – might distract you from an important truth: that the foundation of their greatness was built telling the story of America at its absolute worst, a story that revealed American journalism at its absolute best.