Eugene Patterson was a newspaper editor - a Southern newspaper editor - who wrote about the South when it was a deadly place; full of evil, full of anger, full of people who hated and resist change.
Yes, I know. To many of you the South is exactly like that now. You look upon us as a bastion of prejudice and conservativism and see nothing helpful or hopeful about the place. You despair of its redemption. Many of you think you should secede from us.
Eugene Patterson died today. And however lacking we in the South may be today, perhaps you will agree with me that he, as a Southerner, was different. Please follow below the squiggle-diddle.
Back in 1963, you may remember, four little girls were murdered at a church in Alabama. We seem, too often I think, inspired to look into the depths of our soul when our sickness leads to the death of children, and this was no different.
Eugene Patterson, a Southerner, was a newspaperman in Atlanta, a city that was then, as it is now, deep in the South, and he was a newspaperman at a time when that really meant something - like having a voice and a soul and courage to tell right from wrong, not just a false equivalency of balanced ideologies.
Here is something that Eugene Patterson wrote after that murder of four little girls. It is an excerpt, and I suggest, if you are interested, you go looking for the rest of it. It was published on September 16, 1963.
This is how he began his editorial, which he called "A Flower for the Graves" :
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.And this is what Eugene Patterson wrote toward the end of his article:
Every one of us in the white South holds that small shoe in his hand.
We hold that shoe in our hand, Southerner. We hold that shoe in our hand, Southerner. Let us see it straight, and look at the blood on it. Let us compare it with the unworthy speeches of Southern public men who have traduced the Negro; match it with the spectacle of shrilling children whose parents and teachers turned them free to spit epithets at small huddles of Negro school children for a week before this Sunday in Birmingham; hold up the shoe and look beyond it to the state house in Montgomery where the official attitudes of Alabama have been spoken in heat and anger.Eugene Patterson was a Southerner who spoke to Southerners, who held up the mirror to Southerners and forced them not to look away. Martin Luther King Jr. was another Southerner who did the same. There were a lot of Southerners like them, not just a few, and there are even some like them today.
Let us not lay the blame on some brutal fool who didn’t know any better.
We know better. We created the day. We bear the judgment. May God have mercy on the poor South that has so been led. May what has happened hasten the day when the good South, which does live and has great being, will rise to this challenge of racial understanding and common humanity, and in the full power of its unasserted courage, assert itself.
The South is conservative today, as it was then, but it was a different type of conservative. By many metrics it is still full of hate and prejudice and fear. But there is also hope; hope that those of us who see the world as it should be can someday push past this anger and divisiveness - and not just here, but also in the places far and wide from here.
Eugene Patterson was a Southerner and a friend to progressive thought and action, who helped a lot of people here see things differently and to embrace the common dignity of all human beings. Eugene Patterson died today, and I thought you should know.