Academic journal article Journalism History

Ralph McGill: A Biography

Academic journal article Journalism History

Ralph McGill: A Biography

Article excerpt

Clowse, Barbara Barksdale. Ralph McGill: A Biography. Macon, Ga.: Mercer University Press, 1998. 315 pp. $29.95. As the century closes, it is worth remembering those who played significant roles in the great moral crusade to extend the promise of the Constitution to citizens regardless of race. A new scholarly biography of Ralph Emerson McGill, the first in a quarter century, reminds us that the voice of one newspaper editor provoked a dialogue about race in the Deep South where segregation was the law and polite society did not discuss that intractable "situation." McGill, editor and publisher of the Atlanta Constitution from the 1940s through the 1960s and a nationally syndicated columnist, won a Pulitzer Prize belatedly in 1959 for his passionate condemnation of hatemongers in the wake of the Supreme Court's ruling outlawing segregated schools. That is why he is remembered with such distinction: his willingness to shatter the conspiracy of silence about race and to stimulate a public discourse on race. Except for that, even with all of his international travels and dispatches, and his relationships with five presidents, he would have remained a figure in shadow.

Researching McGill's career is no small undertaking. He left 20,000 columns and several thousand letters; there also are hundreds of people still alive who knew him (he died on February 3, 1969, two days shy of his seventy-first birthday) plus books, speeches and interiews. Splicing his words with the records of his time and contemporaries' memories is a task which Barbara Barksdale Clowse does well.

A fresh biography is overdue. We had only the readable 1972 work by McGill's "Boswell," his dear friend, colleague, and drinking companion, Harold Martin. McGill hired Martin in 1939 after the Atlanta Georgian was bought and closed. Martin treasured McGill, and his biography offers compassionate I-was-there insights. Apart from these strengths, however, he glossed over some of his friend's weaknesses. Clowse's biography contrasts with Martin's in content, style and tone. Given the passage of time, she has consulted sources unavailable to Martin. She also conducted interviews with people for whom the years have given a matured perspective. Time and emerging evidence have substantiated and even amplified McGill's significant contribution tothe advancement of civil rights. Research also reveals "downs" in McGill's career. …

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