A True Legend in American Journalism  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   July/August 2002

A True Legend in American Journalism   

Ralph Emerson McGill: Voice of the Southern Conscience
By Leonard Ray Teel
The University of Tennessee Press
559 pages; $50 hardcover, $24.95 paperback

Book review by Jack Nelson
Jack Nelson is now retired after 36 years with the Los Angeles Times, 21 of them as Washington bureau chief.     


Ralph McGill was never one to be cowed by critics. Accustomed to accusations of treachery for condemning racial injustice in the South, the Atlanta Constitution editor retorted in his page-one column that he agreed with Marse Henry Watterson, another famous Southern editor, who once declared:

Things have come to a hell of a pass

When a man can't flog his own jackass.

And McGill did flog his native South. He lashed out at not only the Ku Klux Klan and other hate-mongers, but at members of the Establishment as well--politicians, businessmen, ministers, even journalists--who resisted reform or remained silent in the face of racial injustices. Replying to charges of disloyalty in one of his columns, which the Constitution published seven days a week on page one, McGill wrote: "Who loves his region more--he who fights those things in it which are ugly and wrong and unjust or he who says, 'Let us dwell on our lovely sunsets and our beautiful fields and not advertise our faults.' "

In fact, McGill did love the South and occasionally wrote lovingly of its fields and sunsets. But mostly he wrote about the cruelty and brutality of white supremacy and other wrongs that needed righting.

Leonard Ray Teel, a Georgia State University professor and former Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter, chronicles McGill's lonely battle in vivid and moving detail in a definitive and thoroughly documented biography. Although heavily sourced and footnoted (with 54 pages of footnote explanations and 20 pages of bibliography), the book is a fast-paced read. Relying on numerous interviews, private correspondence and voluminous records accumulated over 14 years, Teel has painted a full-length portrait, warts and all, of one of the greatest journalists of the 20th century.

McGill already was a legendary figure in American journalism when I joined the Atlanta Constitution in 1952. His pungent writing fascinated many readers while infuriating others. But even those who hated him were in awe of him. In the late 1950s, a grand jury in Dublin, Georgia, angry over McGill's columns and upset about a Constitution story I had written exposing a local tax fraud, subpoenaed him in an effort to intimidate him. Several jurors openly bragged about how they couldn't wait to rake him over the coals. When he showed up, they were so overawed they asked a few innocuous questions and thanked him for his time. As McGill sauntered from the grand jury room, he grinned and winked at me.

It wasn't the only time a grand jury tried to intimidate McGill. Gene Patterson, another superb journalist, who succeeded McGill as editor of the Constitution and who was one of his closest friends, recalled a time in 1948 when, as a young United Press reporter, he was assigned to cover McGill's appearance before a grand jury in Lyons, Georgia. According to Patterson, McGill had merely written a couple of columns against lynch mobs and "the grand jury was empaneled to...rough him up."

McGill took such hostility in stride, as though he considered it the price for turning out columns that thundered with righteousness and, often, with his own personal brand of invective. After the bombing of an Atlanta synagogue in 1958, he castigated the perpetrators as "mad-dog minds," "diseased, hate-filled minds," "yellow rats" and "wolves of hate." "This is the harvest of defiance of courts and the encouragement of citizens to defy law on the part of many Southern politicians," he wrote. "It is not possible to preach lawlessness and restrict it."

Outraged racists responded with death threats, garbage piled on McGill's lawn and abusive telephone calls. Politicians stoked the fires by calling him "Red Ralph" or "nigger-lover Ralph McCoon."

But McGill kept on writing, not only of racial injustice, but of poverty, poor health, wretched education and other social ills that plagued the South. While much of what he wrote was based on solid research, as a columnist he was highly opinionated and was never restrained by the principle of objective reporting.

In fact, in his 1959 Pulitzer memorial address, McGill said that "one of the curses of newspapering was, and is, the cult of objectivity. Objectivity, of course, was a formula invented for escaping from the recklessly slanted news of the good old days. Print both sides, we said, and let the people make up their minds. But we overdid it."

Operating in an earlier era when some journalists were much more prone to be politically active than they are today, McGill did not hesitate to become involved in politics--at the local, state and national level. With his column syndicated in 300 newspapers, he became nationally influential and a confidant not only to mayors, but to governors and presidents, as Teel describes in some detail.

To some, like Gene Patterson, "Pappy," as friends called McGill, was a saint. A great editor and a great human being he was, but a saint he wasn't. While McGill's many virtues and achievements far outweighed any negatives, like most men, even the great ones, he had his share of flaws. And Teel's biography is richer and more credible because he doesn't stint in detailing them while giving McGill full credit for courageously leading the fight for racial justice in the South.

Alcohol was a problem. McGill was such a heavy drinker he frequently disgraced himself and others in public, according to Teel, who describes an incident in which McGill got drunk and abusive while he and Carl Ackerman, then dean of the Columbia University School of Journalism, were representing the American Society of Newspaper Editors in China in the 1940s. Infuriated by McGill's behavior, Ackerman later wrote a scathing report to ASNE.

McGill's drinking had become legendary, according to FBI files, but Ackerman's disgust and his report to ASNE served to sober him up somewhat. McGill's FBI file was especially thick, in part because he had an exceptionally close relationship with Director J. Edgar Hoover. Hoover considered him an official and confidential contact who provided the FBI with crucial information. McGill, Teel writes, "saw no conflict of interest in a newspaper editor assisting the government, even to the extent of becoming a de facto aide."

A world traveler, McGill was one of the first editors to warn of the rise of Adolph Hitler. But his reporting on foreign affairs, on overseas trips sometimes financed by the federal government, didn't always live up to his expertise on domestic issues.

After Winston Churchill's "Iron Curtain" speech in Fulton, Missouri, in 1946, McGill counted Churchill among the right-wing extremists and "irresponsible spokesmen in this country" who he contended were making it hard to conduct "a reasonable discussion of Russia's position in world affairs, as related to our own." And after the ill-fated Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961, McGill wrote that Cuba was so isolated, except for the Soviet Union, that Fidel Castro "can't last."

But McGill had no peer in courageously exposing racial injustices. And in risking death threats, the wrath of the Klan and the threat of libel suits, he got little or no help from the Constitution's news side. As editor, he ran the editorial pages. But except for his page-one column, he had no authority and little influence over the Constitution's news sections. A managing editor supervised news. And lawyers, already concerned about libel suits over McGill's columns, advised the managing editors to go slow on civil rights stories, giving the newspaper a kind of split personality.

If McGill's crusade was a lonely one, he won many awards and much acclaim over his lifetime. But no honor was more satisfying than the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing that he was finally awarded in 1959 for his column condemning the zealots who bombed the Atlanta synagogue. He had been a contender for the award several times since 1945 and his trip to China with Columbia's Ackerman. Teel writes that McGill always felt that Ackerman, who was secretary of the Pulitzer Board, had kept him from winning the award earlier.

McGill died in February 1969, days shy of his 71st birthday. At his funeral, Patterson delivered a eulogy that reflected the sentiments of many of McGill's colleagues, including myself: "I respected him, and he taught me what a man ought to be. He was loved by his friends and respected by his enemies because a Southerner always recognizes that a man who said what he thought was right, and stuck by it, was a man you had to respect. There never will be another one like him."

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