Gene Patterson, an influential editor of the Atlanta Constitution, was known for his thundering daily columns in defense of civil rights and against the violence sweeping the South in the 1960s. He was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing in 1967, and in 1985 he founded Georgia Trend, a monthly business magazine.
Early Life and Career
Eugene Corbett Patterson was born in Valdosta on October 15, 1923, to Annabel Corbett and William C. Patterson. His father, a banker, was financially devastated by the Great Depression of the 1930s, and the family moved from its home in Douglas to a fifty-acre farm near Adel, taking up residence in a small house that the Pattersons had originally built for tenants. His father worked in various banking jobs around Georgia, living in boarding houses and riding Greyhound buses home on the weekends, while his mother taught school and took charge of the farm. Patterson wrote years later that, with his brother, sister, and mother, “We milked cows, butchered hogs and steers, hoed peanuts and pulled corn and picked cotton and cropped tobacco. School and then college offered the only escape.”
He attended North Georgia College (later North Georgia College and State University) in Dahlonega, where he trained as an army cadet and edited the campus newspaper. He later attended the University of Georgia in Athens, graduating in 1943 with a degree in journalism. Patterson entered the army immediately thereafter and was made a lieutenant, and by age twenty-one he was a tank platoon leader with the 10th Armored Division of General George S. Patton’s Third Army. He won a Silver Star and Bronze Star with Oak-Leaf Cluster for his actions in Patton’s counterattack at the Battle of the Bulge and in the race across Europe during World War II (1941-45).
After the war, Patterson accepted a commission in the regular army, completed flight training, and became an army pilot. In 1947 he resigned as captain and accepted a job on the Temple (Texas) Daily Telegram, the newspaper nearest to his army post. Soon after, he returned to Georgia to work for the Macon Telegraph and the United Press news service in Atlanta. With United Press he moved to Columbia, South Carolina; New York City; and London, England, where he was bureau chief. In 1950 Patterson married Mary Sue Carter; the couple had one daughter, Mary.
Civil Rights Era at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution
In 1956 Patterson was hired by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, which then published editions under both the Journal and the Constitution mastheads. He became editor of the morning Constitution, for which he wrote a column seven days a week from 1960 to 1968. He also wrote editorials for the afternoon Journal and served as executive editor of the two newspapers.
In becoming the editor of the Constitution, Patterson succeeded Ralph McGill, a legendary journalist who had been given the title of publisher. McGill continued to write his daily column, published on the newspaper’s front page, while Patterson wrote from the editorial page. Patterson has often said that his debt to McGill was immense. “He showed me by example in his daily column that you could tell the truth about civil rights in a Deep South newspaper in the mid-twentieth century and get away with it—if you were tough enough to brush off the threats and hate of maybe a majority of your outraged readers,” he said in a 2002 commencement speech.
According to Patterson, the intent of his editorial writing, and that of other southern editors who campaigned against segregation, was to start a conversation among whites in the South. His most famous column was written on September 15, 1963, the day that the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, was bombed, killing four African American children who were attending Sunday school. Titled “A Flower for the Graves,” the column appeared in the next morning’s newspaper, and its tone of simmering anger—”Only we can trace the truth, Southerner—you and I. We broke those children’s bodies”—created a sensation. That evening, at the request of CBS news anchor Walter Cronkite, Patterson read the column in its entirety on the network news. More than 1,000 people from around the country wrote or sent telegrams to Patterson, the vast majority thanking him for speaking honestly and forcefully.
In a 1977 oral history of the civil rights era, Patterson described that period as being “frozen in silence.” McGill’s columns, so prominently placed on the front page of the Constitution, prompted white southerners to talk about race, Patterson said, “even if all they did was cuss McGill.” According to Claude Sitton, a former New York Times reporter who covered the civil rights movement, Patterson “was even more clearly outspoken than Ralph McGill,” and Hank Klibanoff, a former editor at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution who coauthored the Pulitzer Prize-winning Race Beat (2007), adds that Patterson, McGill, and other segregation foes at southern newspapers were integral in convincing the administrations of U.S. presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson that desegregation could succeed in the South.
In 1968, after a series of clashes with Jack Tarver, the president of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Patterson resigned and accepted a job as managing editor of the Washington Post under executive editor Benjamin C. Bradlee. After three years he resigned from the Post, saying that Bradlee was reluctant to give up any meaningful authority. After a year of teaching public policy at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, Patterson returned to journalism in 1972, when Nelson Poynter, the owner of the St. Petersburg Times in Florida and Congressional Quarterly in Washington, D.C., brought him on as editor for the Times. After Poynter’s death in 1978, Patterson became chairman and chief executive of the Times Publishing Company and its affiliates.
Under Patterson’s leadership, the Times won two Pulitzer Prizes, and it was named one of the ten best newspapers in America by Time magazine in 1984. The company bought the business magazine Florida Trend in 1980 and launched Georgia Trend five years later.
Patterson retired from the Times Publishing Company in 1988 at age sixty-five. A collection of his columns, The Changing South of Gene Patterson, was published in 2002, and in 2008 he wrote a book about his Tenth Armored Division’s role in the Battle of the Bulge called Patton’s Unsung Armor of the Ardennes. Patterson received honorary degrees from fifteen colleges and universities, including Duke University; Emory University in Atlanta; Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts; Mercer University in Macon; North Georgia College and State University; and Oglethorpe University in Atlanta. Duke University established an endowed professorship of journalism and communications in his name.
Patterson lived in St. Petersburg until his death on January 12, 2013, at age eighty-nine.