Portrait of a Southern Liberal

Ralph McGill: Reporter

by Harold H. Martin
Atlantic-Little Brown, 344 pp., $10.95

Around Ralph McGill, editor of the Atlanta Constitution, an aura of sainthood formed long before he died, and it is probably too soon after his death in 1969 to try to penetrate it. But one can see now that McGill’s reputation is built on something that never was. He was a thoroughly likable, friendly man, a good talker and a good listener, but he was neither a fearless, uncompromising editor nor a powerful influence for good in the South. In fact, McGill had no following in the South. Although he wrote a daily column on the front page of the Atlanta Constitution for many years, there is no evidence that anything he said there made even a small change in southern life. Ironically, in fact, his influence in the South declined as his national, even international, reputation flourished. As often happens, his influence was least when it was most widely thought to be at its height.

In the South nothing is ever quite what it seems to be. This is particularly true about the behavior within the South of southern liberals. The southern liberal is like no other. He is, more than anything else, a tangle of contradictions, and McGill can be said to have epitomized southern liberalism. His career marks the stages of southern liberalism’s failure in the years between 1946 and 1960 to seize its greatest opportunity, which was to give the South rational leadership during its worst crisis since the Civil War.

If the author of this biography has failed to see the main interest of McGill’s career, he has described his life with unusual candor, particularly unusual in view of the fact that the author was one of the closest friends of a man who put a high price on friendship. Well, for that matter, both did; both were genial fellows. It was pleasant to meet in their offices in Atlanta at lunchtime, and take a walk with them in the Georgia sun, joining their easy, effortless talk. They seemed to be good men, as good as you could be and still live in the South. It was hard to object to their explanations of what you could and what you simply could not do as a white southerner, so convivial was the ambiance at Emil’s, one of their favorite restaurants. Only after you had left them could you say to yourself, no, that won’t do at all, the racial situation will never be solved in their gradual and indefinite way.

Of course, the tyranny of good fellowship, the absolute necessity of being a good ol’ boy, is typical of the white man’s South. For isn’t this southern hospitality, southern friendliness, a form of the pressure to conform, another way of saying, “You can’t possibly disagree with us. We’re such nice, reasonable people”? I have felt this a hundred times and almost always when I had lunch with McGill and Martin in Atlanta. They made me feel …

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