ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (AP) — Eugene Patterson, the Pulitzer Prize-winning editor and columnist who helped fellow Southern whites understand the civil rights movement, eloquently reminding the silent majority of its complicity in racist violence, died Saturday evening at his Florida home. He was 89.
Patterson was surrounded by family friends when he died of complications from cancer, according to B.J. Phillips, a spokeswoman for the family.
Patterson was editor of the Atlanta Constitution from 1960 to 1968, winning a Pulitzer Prize in 1967 for editorial writing and doing a signed column every day for eight years. He wrote about the civil rights movement at a time when many Southern newspapers were reluctant to cover it.
Patterson’s Sept, 16, 1963, column about the Birmingham church bombing that killed four girls, titled ‘‘A Flower for the Graves,’’ was so moving he was asked by Walter Cronkite to read it on the ‘‘CBS Evening News.’’
‘‘A Negro mother wept in the street Sunday morning in front of a Baptist Church in Birmingham,’’ Patterson began the column. ‘‘In her hand she held a shoe, one shoe, from the foot of her dead child. We hold that shoe with her.
‘‘Every one of us in the white South holds that small shoe in his hand. ... We who go on electing politicians who heat the kettles of hate. ... (The bomber) feels right now that he has been a hero. He is only guilty of murder. He thinks he has pleased us. We of the white South who know better are the ones who must take a harsher judgment.’’
‘‘It was the high point of my life,’’ Patterson said in a June 2006 interview from his home in St. Petersburg. ‘‘It was the only time I was absolutely sure I was right. They were not telling the truth to people and we tried to change that.’’
Patterson said he was fortunate to work for a newspaper with ‘‘deep pockets’’ and ‘‘enlightened’’ leadership that encouraged him to use his voice.
‘‘We were rather rare editors in the South at that time,’’ Patterson said of his columns and those of Constitution Publisher Ralph McGill. He worked under McGill, himself a Pulitzer winner in 1959, and then succeeded him at the helm of the Constitution four years later.
In the 2004 Discovery Times Channel documentary ‘‘Someone’s Watching,’’ Patterson recalled being asked by the FBI to print damaging information on the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.
‘‘He said we have information from our informant (and that means in FBI lingo, a wiretap) that Dr. King is being unfaithful to his wife,’’ Patterson said. ‘‘And I said to him, ‘We’re not a peephole journal. We don’t print that kind of stuff.'’’
When he was approached a second time, Patterson recalled, ‘‘I finally said to him, ‘Look, the news story here is not Dr. King’s life. It’s the misuse of the federal police power by the FBI in trying to damage an American citizen.'’’
In 1968, Patterson joined The Washington Post and served three years as its managing editor, playing a central role in the publication of the Pentagon Papers. After leaving the Post he spent a year teaching at Duke University.
He became editor of The St. Petersburg Times and its Washington publication, Congressional Quarterly, in 1972 and was later chief executive officer of The St. Petersburg Times Co. Under his leadership, the Times won two Pulitzer Prizes and became known as one of the top newspapers in the country.
Times owner Nelson Poynter, who died in 1978, chose Patterson to ensure his controlling stock in the newspaper company was used to fund a school for journalists then called the Modern Media Insititute. It is now known as the Poynter Institute, which owns the Tampa Bay Times (formerly The St. Petersburg Times).
‘‘A person — one person — had to be entrusted with fulfilling what Mr. Poynter intended,’’ said Roy Peter Clark, the school’s first faculty member. ‘‘That meant he had to be trusted enough not to sell the newspaper to Knight Ridder or Gannett or take away millions of dollars for personal use. He had to be totally trustworthy, so Mr. Poynter chose Mr. Patterson.’’
A champion of high ethical standards for journalists, Patterson insisted the St. Petersburg Times play the story prominently on the front page when he was arrested for driving while intoxicated.
In 1981, Patterson refused to join other Pulitzer board members in awarding Washington Post reporter Janet Cooke the prize for her story of a young heroin addict.
Patterson said at the time the story didn’t ‘‘smell right,’’ and said at best the story was ‘‘an aberration,’’ tainted by Cooke’s promise not to disclose information that could help save a child’s life.Continued...