Georgia Lieutenant Governor Lester Maddox burns a copy of the ATLANTA CONSTITUTION, 1971.
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In my childhood home, Ralph McGill was a dust-covered spine on the bookshelf, a name that drifted in and out of my parents’ conversations but for which I had no anchoring point of reference. My father had worked at an Atlanta advertising firm during McGill’s tenure at the Constitution and kept a copy of The South and the Southerner alongside the works of W.J. Cash and Shelby Foote.
But I didn’t give McGill or his work much thought until years later, when I found myself in the hills of North Georgia, writing about the fate of an Appalachian river. With me was an old copy of The South and the Southerner, which I read in my motel room when I wasn’t down on the riverbanks. The first essay in the book is titled “There Are Many Souths,” and in it McGill sets out into the hill country near the Chattahoochee River (not unlike the Tennessee mountains of his youth) and finds it a place dramatically changed from the land he remembered. For me, more compelling than his portrait of Appalachia was the way he used his own stories to illuminate the problems of the entire region. Here is how he tried to explain the land of his birth to a Roman bookseller in 1945:
The American South was a regional abstraction with a capital S. It possessed, like his Naples and Sicily, a stubborn, often unjustified, pride; it was easygoing and yet violent when it chose to be; it shared, as did southern Italy, a common mystique in which there is grandeur, and pathos, and a note of falseness too. It was something, I said, that I had been born in and to which I had given all my years, but the complexities of it were often too much for me. Now fluid as quicksilver, now rigid and cruel in its adamant injustice and wrongs, now soft and merry, it was difficult to put in words.
In one short paragraph, McGill, writing in 1963, had managed to summarize all the ambivalence of being a white Southerner—the love and guilt and frustration of it—that still radiates through my generation years later.
From Rome in 1945, he flashed back to rural Georgia, then jumped forward to Brown v. Board of Education and to all the triumphs and losses of the Civil Rights Movement as he had witnessed them. Citing the Swedish economist Gunnar Myrdal, who wrote in 1944’s The American Dilemma that the greatest obstacle our country faced was not the institution of slavery or segregation but “the moral conflict in the heart of white Americans,” McGill set out to unravel that moral conflict as it pertained to Southerners at mid-century, including his own gradual awakening about race. The resulting hybrid of autobiography, history, and sociology, The South and the Southerner, was not so much about how white Southerners would come to live alongside African Americans, but how they would ever come to live with themselves.
“The more sensitive Southerner often is self-embarrassed by a realization that he has accepted unquestioningly some aspect of his community life which he rejects,” he wrote.
The Southerner suffers, too, from having estranged himself from much of the life about him. Segregation is estrangement. It is a withdrawal from humanity that is close at hand, that passes in the streets, that lives just over the way. Life in separate, side-by-side compartments, as events of the last half of the twentieth century already have demonstrated with such devastating emphasis, is productive of results both explosive and tragic. This is a part of the guilt and accusation that make up the mosaic of Southern conscience.
A number of lights clicked on when I read The South and the Southerner in that wood-paneled motel room in North Georgia. The first was that personal journalism of the sort McGill practiced could reach people in ways other types of writing could not, and, like Twain and Orwell, he was doing it years before anyone had ever heard of New Journalism. Here was a man who spoke honestly about his own life and limitations, who struggled with how his world was changing and with what those changes meant, who wrote in the first person with both intimacy and candor. He loved the South “as parents love a crippled child,” but never excused its deficiencies. Evident throughout the book was McGill’s anger at the region’s corrupt segregationist leaders, but rage did not strangle his prose. Like Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” (in which, incidentally, King calls McGill a “prophetic” ally), the book’s power came from the author’s clarity and control. Still, as much as he had seen, he didn’t have all the answers, nor did he pretend to.
If The South and the Southerner didn’t offer prescriptive policies for social change, it did provide a sweeping indictment of what had long poisoned the South: a lack of industrial development and high poverty rates; a failed school system; politicians who used race to manipulate their uneducated, unemployed constituents; the sophistry of “professional Southerners” who summoned the ghosts of the Civil War at every opportunity; a clergy who preached the love and tolerance of Jesus Christ, then declared segregation to be the will of God. Until any of those basic maladies was soothed, McGill contended, the cancer of racial hatred would persist. Bringing the hammer down when he had to, his was still a compassionate voice tinged with warm humor. And unlike earlier works by Southern whites—W.J. Cash’s The Mind of the South (1941) and Lillian Smith’s Killers of the Dream (1949) come to mind—The South and the Southerner wasn’t filled with broad-stroke conjectures or bold theories; rather, it was one man’s observations on the land that had shaped him, the land he hoped in some part to reshape. True to the book’s provisional title, it was “The Education of Ralph McGill.”
Given that McGill was a giant among the journalists of his day—idolized by young Southern newspapermen in the 1940s and ’50s the way today’s generation of reporters venerates the late David Halberstam—I wondered: Why has McGill faded from popular history? And why has his most expansive and insightful work, The South and the Southerner, been largely forgotten?
One reason may be that the idea of a white Southern liberal writing about racial intolerance during the Civil Rights years seems redundant or even paternalistic to a modern reader. Dr. King brought the world’s much-needed attention to the problems of the South, and African-American intellectuals like Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, and James Baldwin were finally getting the wide readership they deserved. But to minimize McGill’s contribution is to underestimate the crushing tension of the times and to misunderstand his approach. The audience he reached with his varied columns was broad, but the one he targeted—what his colleague and biographer Harold Martin called “the great massed millions of southerners in the middle—those who held allegiance neither to the NAACP nor the Ku Klux Klan”—was quite specific. Those people most needed moral direction, McGill felt, because their long silence about hatred was as corrosive to the region as the hatred itself. More than speaking on behalf of Southern blacks, he worked to highlight the endemic moral failures of his own Southern whites: “Where have the ‘best people,’ the ‘good people’ been?”
Despite his close friendship with Patterson and other brave editors like Harry Ashmore of the Arkansas Gazette and Bill Baggs of the Miami News, the place McGill occupied among the Southern progressives of his day was still a lonely one. As one who had carefully observed both Hitler on the right and Stalin on the left, nothing frightened him the way groupthink did. He remained a lifelong Democrat, but before any party or ideology McGill adhered first to his own sense of honor and integrity, of which intellectual honesty was a crucial component. To him, none of these values could be found at any ideological extreme, whether it was on the far right or the far left. (He was as critical of black separatism as he was of white supremacy.) “I have always tried to develop a nonconforming mind,” he wrote, “believing such a mind necessary to one whose job it is to comment on events and policies.… If man ever becomes tamed, and if he loses the one paramount freedom from which all others stem—the freedom of his mental processes—then all else is lost.”
Determined to forge his own opinions on social change, McGill appeared dangerous and unforgivably radical to his conservative critics, but for a good number of Civil Rights leaders—like Walter White of the NAACP, who branded him a “weasel” when the editor failed to advocate a federal anti-lynching law—he was an apologist, an accommodator, not nearly radical enough. This is understandable, especially in light of McGill’s initial hope that “the best people, the good people” of the white South would demand justice for African Americans without federal pressure. But his views on activism grew more passionate and committed as the Movement gathered momentum in the 1950s, his voice reaching new levels of outrage whenever white Southerners employed cruel acts of violence to protect their “heritage.” In 1958, white supremacists bombed Atlanta’s Benevolent Congregation Temple, and in his shock and grief McGill wrote “A Church, a School,” the column that would help win him the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing.
There will be, to be sure, the customary act of the careful drawing aside of skirts on the part of those in high places. ‘How awful!’ they will exclaim. ‘How terrible. Something must be done.’
But the record stands. The extremists of the citizens’ councils, the political leaders who in terms violent and inflammatory have repudiated their oaths and stood against due process of law have helped unloose this flood of hate and bombing.
You do not preach and encourage hatred for the Negro and hope to restrict it to that field.… When the wolves of hate are loosed on one people, then no one is safe.
And after a string of devastating political assassinations in the 1960s—Medgar Evers and John F. Kennedy in 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert Kennedy in 1968—McGill let loose with blistering ferocity on:
the jackals, the cowards, the traitors, the failures, the yapping feist pack that tries to drive out truth; those who dislike Jews, Negroes, Catholics and liberals; the bitter and evil persons who organize themselves and send out hate literature; the Klan types, the States’ Rights diehards, those who dynamite churches, synagogues and homes—they are the abscesses in America’s society.
Diverging from the course others tend to follow, McGill became bolder and more radical as he aged. The South and the Southerner was published when he was sixty-five. He sliced up “the yapping feist pack” when he was almost seventy. Once, when looking back on his first columns, McGill admitted to Gene Patterson that he was ashamed of them and wished he had spoken out in more emphatic terms. “They’re pretty pale tea,” he said. But Patterson feels the editor was too hard on his early efforts, considering what he was up against: “Mr. McGill’s wide unpopularity proved he hadn’t been brewing pale tea at all.”
McGill’s principles, as finely tuned as they were to issues of human rights, did occasionally lead him astray. Contrary to his usual independence, his loyalty to the Marine Corps (or any troops in battle), to the American government, and to President Johnson shaped his adamantine support of the war in Vietnam, a position that greatly eroded (and in some cases, dissolved) his reputation among liberals. He had sized up Senator Joseph McCarthy as a “sinister psychopath” in 1950, but the editor still lived with his generation’s Cold War fears of Communist expansion abroad. Vietnam, like Eastern Europe under the Soviets, looked to him like another case of the Reds marching across the lives of unwilling innocents, and he scolded anyone who tried to convince him otherwise. As his biographer Leonard Ray Teel put it, “It was as though, when it came to war, McGill surrendered qualities which were a source of wisdom and strength—his lifelong moderation between extremes and his capability of gleaning truth from even those who disagreed with him.” This was mystifying to other Southern progressives, including Martin Luther King, Jr., who once asked the Constitution’s business manager, “How can McGill be so right on race, and so wrong about Vietnam?”
Simply put, he was right on race and wrong on Vietnam because he didn’t live in Vietnam. Or, rather, he had not dedicated decades of his life to observing it, challenging it, reading about it, and discussing it with people he trusted, as he had done with race in the American South. When he had written so perceptively years before about Hitler’s viselike grip on the minds of the German people, he had been right there among them, watching the dictator’s rabid speech at the Reichstag. Without similar immersion on the ground in Vietnam (he traveled there only briefly, in 1966), McGill in this case defaulted to his loyalties and to his idealism, even when the ideal of fighting Communism in Vietnam was neither pragmatically viable nor strategically necessary and it had been perverted by other cynical imperatives.
But, his defiant position on that war notwithstanding, the dominant trend in McGill’s career—one that spanned almost five decades, from reading the play-by-play in the Nashville newsroom to winning the Medal of Freedom in 1964—was one of learning and changing, of moving in the direction of his conscience, even when doing so put him at significant personal and professional risk. He didn’t always do the right thing, to be sure. Like any journalist fortunate enough to work as long as he did, he suffered his share of bad days, missteps, and lapses in judgment. But moving toward the right thing was always on his mind, even if at times he had to feel his way out of the dark.