September 2, 2017

When a president speaks, it makes sense to figure out what he means, or, in some cases, what he “really” means. What did President Trump really mean when he uttered about the conflict in Charlottesville that there were some "very fine people on both sides?"

What does it mean to be a "very fine" person? I am not asking this question as a teacher of moral philosophy. I ask it in the context of practical citizenship in a troubled world. Are there people so evil, that their words and actions disqualify them from participation in civil society? When their perceived hatred and intolerance make them our adversaries, should we abandon efforts to find in them some residue of common humanity?

This an old moral question, argued famously in The Banality of Evil by Hannah Arendt. Were the Nazi murderers really monsters or normal people who were just following orders? We have all heard stories of leaders of the Third Reich who were said to be loving husbands and doting fathers. Mel Brooks makes fun of this question in “The Producers,” when the Nazi playwright, author of “Springtime for Hitler,” gives the Fuhrer praise for being such a “terrific dancer.”

I know of no journalist more attuned to these moral complexities than Gene Patterson, former editor at Atlanta Constitution (1960-1968). Patterson hired me as a writing coach for the St. Petersburg Times 40 years ago, and I have been inspired by his work ever since.

Exactly 50 years ago, he won a Pulitzer Prize for his daily columns in Atlanta. By the way, he wrote a column every single day — for more than eight years. I have read every one of them. This Saturday at the Decatur Book Festival near Atlanta, I will join two other Southern journalists and Pulitzer winners, Hank Klibanoff and Howell Raines — along with civil rights icon Ambassador Andrew Young — for a celebration of Patterson's life and work.

I wondered what Patterson would have to say about President Trump’s “very fine people” formulation.

Patterson, like his best friend and mentor Ralph McGill, knew how to look evil in the eye and call out its name. He pulled no punches. In his most famous column, on the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Gene blames white Southerners collectively — including himself — for setting the stage upon which four young black girls would be murdered by dynamite.

Athletes have moves — like the crossover dribble — and so do writing athletes. Patterson knew the language of moral outrage and used it when needed.

But he had other moves. One of those moves feels especially important for our day and age. When it came to desegregation and the movement toward equality and racial justice, he realized that white folks — and black folks, for that matter — did not exist in homogenized groupings but rather along a spectrum of experience and opinion.

When it came to his fellow white Southerners — especially the ones who were segregationists — he had this one move he would make time and again. It would go something like this: “I know that this person disagrees with me and does not believe in the mixing of the races, but he did something pretty good and I think you should know about it.”

In September of 1960, an African-American school teacher sent Patterson a letter telling him about a good experience she had with a white state trooper. She had gotten into a car accident in a rainstorm, and the trooper politely helped her out. Patterson reprinted the teacher’s words of gratitude and held up the state trooper’s courtesy as a model, an alternative to the standard actions of some of the bullies who held the same job.

When black churches were bombed in the Georgia countryside in September of 1962, Patterson persuaded white Southerners to make small contributions to their rebuilding. “You may not agree with the mixing of the races,” he told them, “but I know you think it is wrong to destroy another man’s church.”

On July 8, 1964 Patterson wrote a column titled “A Segregationist Speaks.” Here is what he wrote:

When I read what Louis Dersey, 50, of Columbus had done at Lakewood Park in Atlanta, I telephoned him long distance. “You probably don’t agree with my views on race relations and my opposition to Gov. George Wallace,” I began.

“I certainly don’t, Mr. Patterson,” replied Mr. Dersey, who is a segregationist, a believer in Wallace and a member of the Columbus Citizens Council.

“I know you don’t,” I said. “but I wanted to say to you, man to man, that I admired the courage you showed here last Saturday.”

When other white men began beating Negroes with metal chairs, Mr. Dersey shielded a 19-year-old white girl from the attack and took many blows while doing it. He later expressed disgust for the violence of a few, which “has given us a black eye nationwide.”

“Mr. Dersey,” I said on the telephone, “I think most people agree with you and me that this violence in our state is wrong. You and I disagree on Wallace and other things. But I believe the people who agree with you on those things would listen to your thinking about violence, when they might not listen to mine.”

So I asked him to give his views and told him I would print them. They follow:

“I don’t think it’s constitutional for people to be told what to do with their own property. I think the civil rights law is unconstitutional. I’m against it. I believe we’ve got to legislate it out. Repeal it.

“The people who went up from Columbus to Atlanta with me felt the same way, I think. They’re peace-loving people who feel they’re being forced into things they ought not be made to do.

“But they don’t want violence. Lots of them had their families with them. Most thinking people don’t want violence. It just hurts your cause. Of course you’re always going to have some hotheads. I figure if you got 10,000 preachers together you’d have some fistfights.

“But I don’t believe anybody had the right to beat up on those people. That girl didn’t have much of an idea of why she was even there. You could say she had a right to be there. You could also say she and those others had no business going in there. It was a little like me going to a Black Muslim meeting in Harlem and expecting not to get beat up.

“But I don’t think that the white people down here ought to lower themselves to that kind of thing. I don’t believe anybody had the right to beat up those people.”

Mr. Dersey, a Citizens council segregationist and Wallace backer, got a blow in the head from a metal chair, and several nasty phone calls, because he stood up for his belief and shielded a girl from physical injury at Lakewood. What he really stood up for, I think, was the honor of Southerners who are still segregationists but who don’t believe in beating and hurting people.”

One of Patterson reader’s — not an admirer — approached him one day with this accusation: “I know what you are trying to do, Mr. Patterson. You’re trying to make us think that we’re better than we are.”

President Lincoln had a phrase for it. Both he and Patterson spoke to the better angels of our nature. It looks like we could use those angels again.

Support high-integrity, independent journalism that serves democracy. Make a gift to Poynter today. The Poynter Institute is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization, and your gift helps us make good journalism better.
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…
Roy Peter Clark

More News

Back to News