The Sage of Atlanta

By Ochs, Martin | The Virginia Quarterly Review, Summer 1999 | Go to article overview

The Sage of Atlanta

Ochs, Martin, The Virginia Quarterly Review

Ralph McGill: A Biography. By Barbara Barksdale Clowse. Mercer University Press. $29.99.

Thank the gods for Ralph McGill, the great editor of The Atlanta Constitution. When the editor of the this journal handed me this book for review, the thoughts came faster than I could put them down.

In his 48-year term as a newspaperman, and more than three decades as editor and publisher, McGill fought injustice and intolerance under the killing pace that few laymen and ladies understood: a seven-day-a-week column and a ton of editorials.

He had guts, even when he and his family were under police guard at night. He gave it right back to the Kue Clucks when they called, always anonymously. He had an everlasting feeling for the underdog. He had a restless urge to be on the ground interviewing, whether it was in Indonesia or South Georgia. He had tremendous curiosity. He could write. And he was fast. Listen to Celestine Sibley, longtime Constitution reporter and columnist:

"After staff meetings came the writing, with McGill turning toward his typewriter in the swivel chair which he rides with the sort of itchy restlessness of a farm boy traveling bareback on a mule, he would knock out six or eight editorials and his column with a speed which no member of his staff has ever approached."

Barbara Barksdale Clowse, 61, an independent historian and author who is an Atlanta native, has written a good and thorough book-fine reading for those who favor courage and decency. She makes an effort not to whitewash. Critics said, for example, that McGill was often undisciplined and sometimes inconsistent. True. But she thrills with the details that show you his greatest quality of all: his might heart.

McGill's working years, 1921-1969, were those in which editorials meant quite a bit in the hinterland. Politicians good and bad privately disparaged but respected them. As Rudy Olgiati, the indomitable mayor of Chattanooga, once confided, "They can throw you on 50,000 doorsteps every morning."

Conversely, the tiny few newspapers that stayed with the Supreme Court all the way, from the 1954 school desegregation decision on, needed all the respect they could get. By tiny few I mean you could count them, incredibly, on half the fingers of one hand, among metropolitan dailies.

When Brown v. Board of Education came down, McGill was in Europe. The Constitution editorial came some days later. It was moderate. He knew, and whatever Ms. Clowse says, he was right, that to get too far ahead of the audience was death. He called for desegregation, rather than integration of the races. In 17 years dealing editorially with the crisis, I never used the word integration.

In addition, McGill had to deal with corporate uncertainty. The owners of many Southern papers would like to have spoken out but were in fear of their survival. Ms. Clowse throws light on factors that kept McGill all but silent on race for periods during 1956-59, amounting to approximately two years. The Constitution was in continual financial trouble. Through the Howell and the Cox ownerships, he also had to cope with constant differences with executives such as General Manager George Biggers, whom the author terms a Kentucky segregationist.

But when they cut him loose, he soared. A Pulitzer Prize in 1959, an honorary degree from Harvard and 16 other universities and many other honors. A final tribute from the revered Dr. Benjamin Mays, Atlanta educator, was that McGill "was named . . . as having done more than any other writer to get Atlanta and the South to accept federal decrees and congressional legislation in the interest of justice and democracy in a sane and reasonable manner."

And he helped lift up the preeminent Southern city, in the midst of all the fearful racial troubles.

There were bombings and kidnappings, killings and the rest. But when Atlanta desegregated its public schools, the scene was "completely peaceful," Ms. …

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