Ralph Emerson McGill: Voice of the Southern Conscience

By Martin, Hugh J. | Journalism History, Winter 2003 | Go to article overview

Ralph Emerson McGill: Voice of the Southern Conscience


Martin, Hugh J., Journalism History


Teel, Leonard Ray. Ralph Emerson McGill: Voice of the Southern Conscience. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2001. 576 pp. $24.95.

Ralph McGill, the Atlanta Constitution editor who stood for civil rights when it was unpopular and dangerous, now seems more symbol than flesh and blood. This biography, which took fourteen years to write, suggests reality was more complex.

McGill, who died in 1969 at seventy, spent decades trying to move the South toward the rebirth envisioned in the 1880s by Constitution editor Henry Grady. He made his case carefully, always conscious that he would lose his readers if he got too far ahead of them. For example, he at first argued for Southerners to live up to the promise of separate but equal by increasing funding for African-American schools. After Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, McGill applied a bedrock principle-laws must be obeyed-to argue for integrated schools. He pointed out that closing schools to resist integration would deny white children an education.

McGill also politicked behind the scenes. In 1942, he was a key political advisor to Ellis Arnell, a young progressive who defeated Georgia's segregationist governor, Eugene Talmadge. McGill had publicly criticized Talmadge for years.

The book's most stunning revelation is McGill's secret relationship with J. Edgar Hoover. In 1955, Hoover named McGill a trusted cooperative for the special agent in charge in Atlanta. McGill would monitor "news and editorial content" published or broadcast by Cox enterprises, the owner of the Constitution, for negative material about the FBI. This relationship, which had begun in the 1940s, protected McGill from otherwise ruinous accusations that his support for civil rights made him a Communist. However, McGill's political and law enforcement activities demand more explanation than the book provides. His relationship with the FBI is particularly troubling given Hoover's hostility to civil rights.

The lack of interpretation is also apparent when confronting the central question in McGill's life-what made him different from many other Southerners who did not oppose segregation? There are hints. He was haunted by Nazi appeals to hatred that he witnessed during a 1938 trip to Europe. He returned home to crusade for expanded civil liberties in America and for extending free speech around the world. But Leonard Teel, a communications professor at Georgia State University, says little about why McGill could step outside Southern culture and make connections challenging that culture's norms.

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