Gene Patterson has Passed

He was not a photojournalist, though he worked in journalism during what many consider to be the coming of age of our craft. He is not as well known as other civil rights leaders of his time, but his work is of equal importance because it was Gene Patterson, through the bully pulpit of the Atlanta Constitution, brought light to the horror of racial injustice in the south.

At 89 years of age, Mr. Patterson passed on Saturday night.

That his writings still resonate with us, 50 years later, is testament to the power of journalism. Take a moment this Sunday and read just one peace, titled A Flower for the Graves, about the 1963 church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama.

As we work our way through life, we are occasionally graced with those who can use words that resonate as emotionally as an image. Mr. Patterson was one of those. If you have ever doubted the need for great journalism, read just this excerpt:

Only we can trace the truth, Southerner — you and I. We broke those children’s bodies.

We watched the stage set without staying it. We listened to the prologue unbestirred. We saw the curtain opening with disinterest. We have heard the play.

We — who go on electing politicians who heat the kettles of hate.

We — who raise no hand to silence the mean and little men who have their nigger jokes.

We — who stand aside in imagined rectitude and let the mad dogs that run in every society slide their leashes from our hand, and spring.

We — the heirs of a proud South, who protest its worth and demand it recognition — we are the ones who have ducked the difficult, skirted the uncomfortable, caviled at the challenge, resented the necessary, rationalized the unacceptable, and created the day surely when these children would die.

It’s been half a century and his call to justice still resonates.

Mark E. Johnson

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