Martin Luther King Jr. was born 84 years ago today, and the federal holiday commemorating his birth will arrive next Monday – coincidentally, the day that an African-American will be sworn in as president once again on the West Front of the U.S. Capitol.
While the United States has traveled a long road where race is concerned, it still has some distance to travel. And one person who helped in the journey was Eugene Patterson, a journalist and editor who embraced the civil rights movement in the pages of The Atlanta Constitution in the 1960s as part of a lengthy career that also included stints at the Washington Post and the St. Petersburg Times.
Patterson, who died Saturday at age 89, spoke out eloquently on the need for African-Americans to be given the same rights and be treated with the same dignity as their fellow countrymen. In “The Race Beat,” a Pulitzer Prize-winning history of how the press covered the civil rights movement, authors Gene Roberts and Hank Kilanoff recount how Patterson was informed of the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., Sept. 15, 1963, that killed four girls while he was at his home, mowing the grass. He had already prepared a column for the next day’s newspaper, but made his way into the office and penned a replacement column that addressed the atrocity in stark, vivid terms:
“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.”
Those sentiments were undoubtedly not all that popular with a large segment of Patterson’s readership, but they were honest and courageous. It was also medicine his fellow white Southerners needed to swallow, and not just on moral grounds – it was only after African-Americans gained full rights in the South that the region started the economic boom that continues to this day.
It’s often noted that great presidents are forged in times of trial and tribulation, with chief executives like Franklin Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln being prime examples. Perhaps the same could also be said of journalists.