Eugene Patterson (1923-2013)
My fellow J-school grads, those of you who were cognizant in the ’60s, and anyone who grew up south of the Mason-Dixon line will recognize his name. For any of you who don’t, here’s Gene Patterson’s most famous column, “A Flower for Their Graves” that appeared in the Atlanta Constitution in 1963 after the Birmingham 16th Street church bombings, and that Walter Cronkite invited him to read on the CBS Evening News.
A Flower for Their Graves
A Negro mother wept in the street Sunday morning in front of a Baptist Church in Birmingham. In her hand she held a shoe, one shoe, from the foot of her dead child. We hold that shoe with her.
Every one of us in the white South holds that small shoe in his hand.
It is too late to blame the sick criminals who handled the dynamite. The FBI and the police can deal with that kind. The charge against them is simple. They killed four children.
Only we can trace the truth, Southerner — you and I. We broke those children’s bodies.
We watched the stage set without staying it. We listened to the prologue unbestirred. We saw the curtain opening with disinterest. We have heard the play.
We — who go on electing politicians who heat the kettles of hate.
We — who raise no hand to silence the mean and little men who have their nigger jokes.
We — who stand aside in imagined rectitude and let the mad dogs that run in every society slide their leashes from our hand, and spring.
We — the heirs of a proud South, who protest its worth and demand it recognition — we are the ones who have ducked the difficult, skirted the uncomfortable, caviled at the challenge, resented the necessary, rationalized the unacceptable, and created the day surely when these children would die.
This is no time to load our anguish onto the murderous scapegoat who set the cap in dynamite of our own manufacture.
He didn’t know any better.
Somewhere in the dim and fevered recess of an evil mind he feels right now that he has been a hero. He is only guilty of murder. He thinks he has pleased us.
We of the white South who know better are the ones who must take a harsher judgment.
We, who know better, created a climate for child-killing by those who don’t.
We hold that shoe in our hand, Southerner. Let us see it straight, and look at the blood on it. Let us compare it with the unworthy speeches of Southern public men who have traduced the Negro; match it with the spectacle of shrilling children whose parents and teachers turned them free to spit epithets at small huddles of Negro school children for a week before this Sunday in Birmingham; hold up the shoe and look beyond it to the state house in Montgomery where the official attitudes of Alabama have been spoken in heat and anger.
Let us not lay the blame on some brutal fool who didn’t know any better.
We know better. We created the day. We bear the judgment. May God have mercy on the poor South that has so been led. May what has happened hasten the day when the good South, which does live and has great being, will rise to this challenge of racial understanding and common humanity, and in the full power of its unasserted courage, assert itself.
The Sunday school play at Birmingham is ended. With a weeping Negro mother, we stand in the bitter smoke and hold a shoe. If our South is ever to be what we wish it to be, we will plant a flower of nobler resolve for the South now upon these four small graves that we dug.