Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Eugene Patterson - True American Hero

Eugene Patterson
Eugene Patterson died last Saturday in his St. Petersburg, FL home at age 89.

His passing went largely unnoticed in most circles.  But Eugene Patterson was a true American hero.  For the New York Times tribute to Eugene Patterson, CLICK HERE. 

A product of growing up in Georgia during the depression, Patterson served in WWII from Normandy to the Battle of the Bulge.  He received the Silver Star and Bronze Star for his actions serving with General George S. Patton's Third Army.

But that's not what made him a hero - at least not all of what made him a hero.

Following WWII, Patterson began working as a journalist, working his way up from cub reporter, to city hall, to the London bureau of UPI, where he penned his most famous line.  Reporting on Ernest Hemingway's survival of an airplane crash in Africa, Patterson wrote:

"Ernest Hemingway came out of the jungle today carrying a bunch of bananas and a bottle of gin."

But in 1956 Patterson landed as editor of the Atlanta Journal and Constitution.  And it was in that role that he displayed courage and leadership during the most difficult time in America since the Civil War.

For those who did not live through it, the times are difficult to even imagine.  Atlanta was not the major metropolis it is today.  It was a city fighting with Birmingham and New Orleans for a regional leadership position in the South.  It was a time of separate drinking fountains and restrooms.  A time when George Wallace in neighboring Alabama lost an election because he was perceived as too accommodating to civil rights and vowed to "never be out-niggered again" in his political campaigns.
A time when it took courage to speak for what was right*

It was a time when a black boy accused of whistling at a white woman could be beaten, hung, tortured and drowned, and the white population of the South thought nothing of it.  It was a time of fire-bombing churches and killing little girls on their way to Sunday School. It was a time when the buses of Freedom Riders were set on fire and the exit doors were blocked.  As the riders desperately crawled out windows to escape the flames, they found themselves in the hands of angry crowds wielding baseball bats and shotguns.  It was a time when civil rights workers disappeared and were later found murdered, when Medgar Evers was shot in front of his family while coming home from work, and when the likes of Ross Barnett, Bull Connor, and George Wallace could openly campaign for "Segregation now.  Segregation tomorrow.  Segregation forever!"

This was a time when to stand up in the South for what was right, for what was moral, for what was essential justice, was dangerous.  And not just dangerous to your career.  It was dangerous to your life.

And yet that is what Eugene Patterson did. 

The man who fought the Nazis displayed even more courage, standing up for what was right despite the grave threat to him, his family, and even the family dog, which was shot by a stranger (the dog survived and lived for 16 years).

For 12 years from 1956 to 1968, Patterson wrote the editorial voice of the Atlanta Journal and Constitution, calling for reason, fairness, freedom and equality.  He tried to convince southerners, as one critic said, "to be better than ourselves."

And he did.

He saw the segregated water fountains and restrooms disappear.  He saw voting rights enacted, and equal accommodations mandated by law.  He saw an African-American elected mayor of Atlanta, then even more amazingly another African-American elected President.

Eugene Patterson played an important part in the transformation of America - in the fulfillment of the American promise that "all men are created equal."  He left his footprint in America.

So when you are looking for heroes, for people to tell your children they should emulate, think about Eugene Patterson.  A rich life.  A courageous life.  A life well lived.

*photo credit: <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/38971527@N04/5924386799/">Village Square</a> via <a href="http://photopin.com">photopin</a> <a href="http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/2.0/">cc</a>

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