Ralph Emerson McGill: Voice of the Southern Conscience

Article excerpt

Ralph Emerson McGill: Voice of the Southern Conscience. Leonard Ray Teel. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2001. 559 pp. $50 hbk. $24.95 pbk.

When Ralph McGill died in 1969 two days shy of his seventy-first birthday, Albert M. Davis of the Atlanta NAACP eulogized the veteran editor and columnist for the Atlanta Constitution as a driving force behind social change in the South for two generations. "If anyone brought the South back into the Union," Davis declared, "it was Mr. McGill."

As McGill interpreted his beloved South to a nation, by turns cajoling, lecturing, charming, and preaching his neighbors down the road to racial tolerance, so has Leonard Teel interpreted McGill in a richly detailed and insightful biography that follows the legendary Southerner's life and career from his humble beginnings in Soddy, Tennessee, through his decades in Atlanta. It is a nuanced work, rich with detail of the civil rights movement that communicates an understanding not just of McGill but of his tumultuous times.

McGill was a complex man writing in an extraordinary era, a passionate moderate with whom segregationists on one side and civil rights activists on the other often found fault. Teel explicates exactly why McGill's moderation was just so revolutionary in conservative Atlanta at mid-century. Readers come away admiring McGill's courage, which was considerable, and understanding the editor's efforts to lead his readers by being just ahead of them on the race question.

Teel's accomplishment here is no small feat. Civil-rights era moderates are notoriously difficult to explain to twentyfirst-century readers who naturally might wish that Southern journalistic leaders of the 1940s and 1950s were more radical integrationists. …