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From AJR,   October 1999  issue

A Man of the Press, and of Passion   

Pat Watters saw, and felt, the stories of a nationís change.


By Reese Cleghorn
Reese Cleghorn is former president of AJR and former dean of the College of Journalism of the University of Maryland.     

Objectivity has always been a worthy but distant target for journalists, since we all bring our values and biases to the pen and keyboard.

The civil rights movement in the '60s was about freedoms, including freedom of the mind. Its driving force was often biblical and its credo a simple belief that the American Constitution could be used to create justice for all. In covering this, a crabbed pursuit of objectivity--what was on the surface--often made journalism pale.

Not so with Pat Watters, who died on August 3 in Louisiana from cancer and emphysema at 72. He was a gentle man of great passion, with a Southern voice more like Willie Nelson's than Joseph Cotton's, a gifted journalist who went with his own powerful feelings about what he saw.

Here is Pat, writing about Birmingham:

"Then...came the most obscene of all the [acts of] violence against the movement, the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church on September 15, 1963, where four little girls were killed and seventeen other persons were injured....

"I stood in the wreckage of the church a few hours after it had happened--stood numbed, looking at the shattered stained-glass windows, the debris, fallen plaster, broken wood throughout the sanctuary, the scattered Sunday School lessons of the children.... I stood in the sanctuary of that church, where the spirit of the movement had many times soared, like the other Negro churches of the South which had become in my mind truly churches--the only places where I had ever experienced real religious feeling, in a lifetime within the South's church-oriented society--stood there and stared aghast, unable to cry or even be angry, only numbly sorrowful--for the church, the people, the movement, what had been done to religion there, but most of all, in a sickened sense of defeat, sorrowful for the South."

When he was city editor of the Atlanta Journal the place crackled with the peculiar kind of energy that only an evening paper of that time could have, with its early-morning takeoff, hand-to-mouth reporting and deadlines running from 9 a.m. into the night. A late edition screamed out onto the streets at 3:30 p.m., with a two-line, Gothic banner head, all caps.

My knee still jerks at 10:35 a.m., which was when the first edition hit our newsroom desks with stories we'd finished scarcely more than an hour earlier. I know now what kind of paper it was. It was neither liberal nor conservative, but reformist through and through, in a state still hobbled by the worst parts of its past. It didn't matter whether a series was on crumbling school buildings or the need to get cattle off the highways; with Pat, the paper looked to the future with care, sometimes anger, and compassion.

The coming of the civil rights movement put a passionate journalist to the test. Some of the best stayed in harness and did extraordinary work; others, like Pat, felt too constrained by the norms of objectivity and the look-the-other-way impulses of the press in its more timid moments.

Across the street from the paper was the Southern Regional Council, with a biracial advocacy staff working on race and poverty problems. Pat went there, and later so did I, as editor of South Today. He was information director and editor (Southern Voices and New South) for 12 years, writing books, magazine pieces and firsthand field reports on the showdowns in Mississippi, Selma, Albany, St. Augustine and elsewhere.

Like a modern Tom Payne, he went wherever the action was, whether assigned to go or not. His insights, instincts and eye for detail illuminated news stories written by scores of others.

Together we wrote "Climbing Jacob's Ladder," and he wrote two other books about racial change, "Down to Now" and "The South and the Nation."

No good history of those times will be complete without the insights of this great original. When some journalists got only the words, he heard the music.