Patterson, who helped fellow whites understand the problems of racial discrimination, died Saturday evening in Florida after complications from
Patterson was editor of the Atlanta Constitution from 1960 to 1968, winning a Pulitzer Prize in 1967 for editorial writing. His famous column of Sept. 16, 1963, about the Birmingham, Ala., church bombing that killed four girls — "A Flower for the Graves" — was considered so moving that he was asked by Walter Cronkite to read it nationally on the "
"A Negro mother wept in the street Sunday morning in front of a Baptist Church in Birmingham," Patterson began his 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 later said in a June 2006 interview from his home in
Patterson also spoke of what he called his good fortune to work for the Atlanta newspaper and an "enlightened" leadership that encouraged his work.
"We were rather rare editors in the South at that time," Patterson said of himself and Constitution Publisher Ralph McGill. Patterson worked under McGill, himself a Pulitzer winner in 1959, and then succeeded him at the helm of the Constitution four years later.
Editor Kevin G. Riley at the
"We benefit still from his work and legacy," Riley told the Associated Press via email.
In 1968, Patterson joined the
He became editor of the
Times owner Nelson Poynter, who died in 1978, chose Patterson to ensure that his controlling stock in the newspaper company was used to fund the school for journalists now known as the Poynter Institute, which owns the Tampa Bay Times (formerly the St. Petersburg Times).
Patterson retired from the Times and Poynter in 1988.
A collection of Patterson's Atlanta Constitution columns was published in book form in 2002 as "The Changing South of Gene Patterson: Journalism and Civil Rights, 1960-1968."
Hank Klibanoff, director of the journalism program at Emory University and coauthor of a Pulitzer Prize-winning book on press coverage of the civil rights movement, said Patterson wrote with deep-seated conviction about the troubled era.
Klibanoff said that when black churches were burned in southwestern Georgia in 1962, Patterson was "deeply disturbed" and wrote a column tweaking white people who claim to be religious but support segregation. He called on whites to raise money to rebuild the churches, sparking an effort that raised $10,000.
"When he sat down to write, that conviction came out. And it came out in just a very, very powerfully written way," Klibanoff said of Patterson.
Patterson was born in 1923 in Georgia and grew up on a small farm. School, fishing and literature were his only means of escape.
He graduated from the University of Georgia in 1943 and served in the Army in Europe during