Race Equality Champion Eugene Patterson Dies

Civil rights advocate Eugene Patterson has died at the age of 89 after being treated for cancer. Patterson was a Pulitzer Prize winning editor and columnist. One of his most memorable columns was written after the church bombing in Birmingham, Ala., that killed four girls in 1963.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Eugene Patterson was a man of the South. He grew up in a time of racial segregation. He became a newspaper columnist. And the story we're about to hear is the story of how he chose to use that platform during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.

Eugene Patterson has died after cancer treatments at the age of 89 and NPR's David Folkenflik reports on his life.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: Eugene Patterson will be forever be known in Atlanta as a fearless champion of racial equality.

CYNTHIA TUCKER: Gene Patterson was a voice of decency and courage who spoke out for the progress of the South.

FOLKENFLIK: That's the Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Cynthia Tucker, the first African-American to lead the editorial pages of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. She said Patterson's columns, which won their own Pulitzer Prize, inspired a backlash.

TUCKER: Let me just say that Patterson didn't just get angry letters to the editor; he got death threats. He was ignored and ostracized by his fellow newspaper editors.

FOLKENFLIK: As a young man he had little to lose. Gene Patterson was born in rural Georgia to a schoolteacher and a bank cashier, a white couple struggling amid the Great Depression. He attended North Georgia College and then the University of Georgia - after which the U.S. Army beckoned. It was World War II.

As his longtime friend Roy Peter Clark observed, a formative period.

ROY PETER CLARK: For a young Southern boy to go off to Europe and to see first-hand the consequences of racial hatred, in the form of the Nazi genocide, changed him forever.

FOLKENFLIK: Patterson was decorated for his service and commanded a tank division under General George Patton during the Battle of the Bulge. Clark said Patterson aspired to become a general, but...

CLARK: Without a war to fight, he needed something more compelling. And he walked from the Army base to a small newspaper in Temple, Texas and began falling in love with the craft of reporting and writing.

FOLKENFLIK: Patterson wrote for the United Press, then become editor in Atlanta, following his mentor Ralph McGill into the dangerous waters of racial strife. Patterson wrote an anguished column after the 1963 firebombing of a Birmingham church killed four black girls.

Walter Cronkite asked him to read it in full on the "CBS Evening News."

HANK KLIBANOFF: It's a love letter for a South whose behavior he hated.

FOLKENFLIK: Hank Klibanoff co-wrote a history of the press during the Civil Rights Movement.

KLIBANOFF: He was a clear voice of sanity at a time when the South had all but gone insane over its determination to hold onto the status quo and to not allow change.

FOLKENFLIK: After Patterson left Atlanta, he became managing editor of the Washington Post. Then, a new chapter: Patterson became editor of the St Petersburg Times in Florida and helped it gain a reputation for tough watchdog reporting, the quality of its writing, and its ethical precepts. He once ordered front page coverage of his own arrest for driving while intoxicated.

Patterson subsequently helped to create and lead a school to train journalists, founded by the paper's owner, Nelson Poynter.

Roy Peter Clark is now a vice president at the Poynter Institute.

CLARK: I think of Gene Patterson as one of the titans of journalism of the 20th century, as somebody who believes in journalism not as a thing unto itself but as a goal towards social justice.

FOLKENFLIK: As his paper, now called the Tampa Bay Times, observed yesterday, Patterson lived up to his own edict: Don't just make a living, make a mark.

David Folkenflik, NPR News.

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