Roy Exum: Eugene Patterson’s Words

Monday, January 14, 2013 - by Roy Exum
Roy Exum
Roy Exum

Fifty years ago I was a young teenager who couldn’t get my arms around what was happening in the South. Fifty years later I still can’t understand racism, prejudice, or hating anyone who has done nothing wrong but, back in the turbulent ‘60s, I vividly remember the civil rights unrest that gripped us all and the way the despicable actions of a few -- in exactly the way prejudice works -- seemed to label us all as something we were not.

During that era of senseless horror, network TV anchor Walter Cronkite, speaking to us like a wise grandfather in such a way that caused him to be known as “the most trusted man in America,”  would end each edition of the CBS Evening News with the line,  “ … and that’s the way it is on (whatever that day’s date would be).

One night in mid-September of 1963, after four innocent children had just been killed in a church bombing in Birmingham, Ala., Walter Cronkite had a guest. Eugene Patterson, the editor of the Atlanta Constitution, had quickly written an editorial about the murders entitled, “A Flower for the Graves.” Cronkite asked Peterson to read that editorial – in his own voice – on the CBS Evening News. It was so unbelievably powerful that Patterson would later earn the Pulitzer Prize for his editorials.

But for a young teenager, sitting in a hushed room and trying to grasp why anyone would do such an atrocious thing, I was deeply moved with the rest of America and have never forgotten how passionate and courageous Patterson was in standing up for what he knew was right.

The same Eugene Patterson died at age 89 on Saturday in Florida after a full life, this long after his famous reading. It should be noted that several days after his appearance on CBS, some Atlanta cowards shot the Patterson family dog but that his dog also survived to live a full life.

Here is the famous column, written by Eugene Patterson, that appeared in the Atlanta Constitution on September 15, 1963:

* * *


By Eugene Patterson, The Atlanta Constitution

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.

Every one of us in the white South holds that small shoe in his hand.

It is too late to blame the sick criminals who handled the dynamite. The FBI and the police can deal with that kind. The charge against them is simple. They killed four children.

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 (N*****) 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.

This is no time to load our anguish onto the murderous scapegoat who set the cap in dynamite of our own manufacture.

He didn’t know any better.

Somewhere in the dim and fevered recess of an evil mind he 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.

We, who know better, created a climate for child-killing by those who don’t.

We hold that shoe in our hand, Southerner. Let us see it straight, and look at the blood on it. Let us compare it with the unworthy speeches of Southern public men who have traduced the Negro; match it with the spectacle of shrilling children whose parents and teachers turned them free to spit epithets at small huddles of Negro school children for a week before this Sunday in Birmingham; hold up the shoe and look beyond it to the state house in Montgomery where the official attitudes of Alabama have been spoken in heat and anger.

Let us not lay the blame on some brutal fool who didn’t know any better.

We know better. We created the day. We bear the judgment. May God have mercy on the poor South that has so been led. May what has happened hasten the day when the good South, which does live and has great being, will rise to this challenge of racial understanding and common humanity, and in the full power of its un-asserted courage, assert itself.

The Sunday school play at Birmingham is ended. With a weeping Negro mother, we stand in the bitter smoke and hold a shoe. If our South is ever to be what we wish it to be, we will plant a flower of nobler resolve for the South now upon these four small graves that we dug.

September 15, 1963

* * *

Just before his death, Patterson finished a massive “editing” of the King James Bible, which has been published and entitled, “Chord: The Old Testament Condensed.” The book has eliminated over a half-million words from the original text in an attempt to streamline it for today’s readers and it has been well-received. Never mind that Patterson was bed-ridden and under the care of Hospice as he did it, the feat lived up to his motto: “Don’t just make a living – make a mark.”

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