Numerous Georgia writers have won Pulitzer Prizes for their work in the various categories of letters, drama, and journalism. Other writers have won for their works about Georgia and its residents.
The Pulitzer Prizes were established in 1917 to recognize excellence in American journalism, letters and drama, education, and public service. Over the years the original categories have been modified and new ones incorporated, so that by 2009 Pulitzers were awarded in twenty-one categories, including biography, drama, fiction, history, nonfiction, poetry, and numerous kinds of journalistic writing.
The prize is named for Joseph Pulitzer, the influential owner and publisher of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and the New York World. Known for journalism that exposed corruption in both the public and private sectors, Pulitzer established the prizes in his will, stipulating that they be administered by the journalism school at Columbia University in New York City and awarded by an advisory board, known today as the Pulitzer Prize Board.
A jury of three to seven board members is assigned to each category, depending on how many entries fall within a category. Many jurors are former prize winners themselves. Each jury presents three unranked finalists to the Pulitzer Prize Board, which makes the final determination. Each May the president of Columbia University presents the awards at a banquet in New York City.
In 2008 the literary journal Georgia Review hosted a four-day celebration on Jekyll Island for recent winners of the prize in Georgia. In attendance were journalist Hank Klibanoff, historian Edward J. Larson, and poet Natasha Trethewey. Poet Stephen Dunn, a contributor to the Georgia Review, also participated.
Fiction winners of the Pulitzer Prize include three Georgia women who capture very different aspects of life in the state through memorable heroines: Caroline Miller, for her novel Lamb in His Bosom in 1934; Margaret Mitchell, for Gone With the Wind in 1937; and Alice Walker, for The Color Purple in 1983. (The awards are made the year after a book’s publication date.) Iowa native MacKinlay Kantor won in 1956 for Andersonville, the most successful of his fifty novels, which chronicles the events at Andersonville prison during the Civil War (1861-65). James Alan McPherson, a Savannah native, won in 1978 for his collection of short stories, Elbow Room. He was the first African American to win the prize for fiction (followed five years later by Walker).
Atlanta native Alfred Uhry won the prize for drama in 1988 for his play Driving Miss Daisy. In 1999, the year after she moved to Atlanta, kindergarten teacher Margaret Edson won for her first play, Wit. (Texan Horton Foote’s play The Young Man from Atlanta, which took the prize in 1995, is actually set in Houston, Texas, with the title character serving merely as a catalyst for the family tensions on which the drama builds.)
In the poetry category, Savannah native Conrad Aiken won in 1930 for his volume Selected Poems. In 2007 Natasha Trethewey won for Native Guard, her third volume of poetry. She is the first graduate of the University of Georgia (UGA) to win in a category outside of journalism.
Winners in biography include William S. McFeely, a historian who won in 1982 for Grant, which covers the life of Union general Ulysses S. Grant. Four years later, in 1986, McFeely joined the history department at UGA. Two works on Martin Luther King Jr. have won Pulitzers—Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, by David Garrow, who later taught at Emory University, won the biography prize in 1987; and Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-1963, the first in Taylor Branch’s trilogy about King, won the history prize in 1989. David Levering Lewis won in 1994 and 2001 for both volumes of his massive biography of W. E. B. Du Bois, another influential leader who spent much of his career in Georgia.
Other winners of the history prize include Daniel Boorstin, an Atlanta native who won in 1974 for the third of his Americans trilogy, The Americans: The Democratic Experience, and David M. Potter, an Atlanta native who won in 1977 for writing The Impending Crisis, 1848-1861. Edward J. Larson, the author of Summer of the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America’s Continuing Debate over Science and Religion and a UGA historian, won the history prize in 1998. Hank Klibanoff, formerly of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, shared the prize in history in 2007 with his coauthor, Gene Roberts, for their book The Race Beat: The Press, the Civil Rights Struggle, and the Awakening of a Nation.
In the general nonfiction category, Atlanta native Garry Wills won in 1993 for Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words That Remade America, and former Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter Douglas A. Blackmon won in 2009 for Slavery by Another Name: The Re-enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II.
As of 2016 the long history of Georgia-affiliated Pulitzer Prizes in journalism included awards to around twenty Georgia natives and/or alumni of Georgia institutions, as well as several nonnatives who wrote about topics pertaining to the state. This history begins, however, with the second public service award given to a southern newspaper—the Columbus Enquirer-Sun—in 1926. The award recognized the work of the paper’s editors, Julian and Julia Collier Harris, on resistance to the teaching of evolution in public schools and on the activities of the Ku Klux Klan. In 1931 the Atlanta Constitution received the same award for exposing graft in Atlanta’s city government. The Columbus Ledger and Sunday Ledger-Enquirer won the award in 1955 for exposing and criticizing corruption in neighboring Phenix City, Alabama.
Thomas L. Stokes Jr., the first individual Georgian to win a Pulitzer Prize in journalism, was an Atlanta native who received a reporting award in 1939 for his writing on corruption in Kentucky’s Works Progress Administration (a federal program initiated as part of U.S. president Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal) while working for the Scripps-Howard Newspaper Alliance.
Among the many recipients of the Pulitzer who worked for Georgia newspapers or covered Georgia topics at the time of their award is Arnold Hardy, who was a student at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta in 1947. Hardy became the first amateur photographer to win, after capturing an image of a girl falling to her death while attempting to escape a fire at the Winecoff Hotel in Atlanta. The following year George Evans Goodwin, an Atlanta native writing for the Atlanta Journal, won a local reporting Pulitzer for his coverage of voter fraud in Telfair County during the gubernatorial election resulting in the “three governors controversy.”
In 1959 renowned Atlanta Constitution editor Ralph McGill won in the editorial writing category for his treatment of hate crimes in Georgia during desegregation, particularly the Temple bombing in Atlanta in 1958 and the activities of the Ku Klux Klan around the state.
Atlanta Constitution journalist John “Jack” Nelson won the Pulitzer for local reporting in 1960 with his exposé of the conditions at the Georgia State Sanitarium (later Central State Hospital) in Milledgeville. His coverage led to reforms at the institution and additional funding for mental health in Georgia from the state legislature. Gene Patterson, a native of Valdosta, won in 1967 for his editorial writing in the Atlanta Constitution.
Moneta J. Sleet Jr. won the award for feature photography in 1969 with his photograph of Coretta Scott King holding her daughter Bernice at the funeral of her husband, slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., in Atlanta. The image was published first in Ebony magazine and then distributed nationally by the Associated Press. The following year Philip Geyelin, writing for the Washington Post, won the award in editorial writing, in part for his coverage of UGA’s denial of a teaching appointment to U.S. secretary of state Dean Rusk.
In 1983 Claude Sitton, an Atlanta native, won the commentary prize while working for the Raleigh News and Observer in North Carolina. The next year, Albert J. Scardino took the prize in editorial writing for his work in Savannah’s Georgia Gazette, for which he served as editor. Writers for the Macon Telegraph and News won a joint prize for specialized reporting in 1985—Jacqueline Crosby and Randall Savage, both UGA graduates, won for exposing the advantages received by athletes at UGA and Georgia Tech. In 1988 Doug Marlette, a cartoonist for the Atlanta Constitution, won the award for editorial cartooning, and the following year Bill Dedman, writing for the Atlanta Journal and Constitution, won the investigative reporting award for his treatment of racially discriminatory lending practices in Atlanta.
In 1993 Michael F. Toner, a journalist with the Atlanta Journal and Constitution, won the award for explanatory journalism with his series “When Bugs Fight Back,” which investigates the problem of resistance to antibiotics and pesticides. Working for the same newspaper, Mike Luckovich won the editorial cartooning award in both 1995 and 2006, and Cynthia Tucker won for her editorial commentary in 2007.