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 a little cranky, somehow disloyal to the South, for the truth is that I couldn’t agree with them, and I often told them so.

The racial situation has gone through so many phases so quickly since 1946 that it is almost impossible to remember what it was like then. But in 1946 the atmosphere in the South seemed hopeful. Some of this hope was vague, of the kind the South has too often succumbed to; that is, the hope that it can solve its problems without having to confront the problem, the Negro. Such hopes are usually embodied in the words “New South,” and when such a period is hailed by southerners it is always a sign to be skeptical. After World War II a New South was to emerge from the effects of “industrialization and urbanization,” words which were fashionable in the southern universities and newspapers in the late 1940s and early 1950s. (This mood was described by one southerner at the time as being the hope that “all the niggers would move to Atlanta.”)

Another hope coming from Chapel Hill was that the South’s subregions—the mountains, the piedmont, the sand hills, the black belt, the coastal plains—would, as the South moved closer to the rest of American life after World War II, manifest their different tendencies and economic structures, and by doing so break the terrible power by which slavery and segregation had arbitrarily and artificially held them together. How different these subregions were had been proven in Professor Rupert Vance’s Human Geography of the South, one of those useful studies which were at that time coming out of the University of North Carolina—itself a source of hope, for if the South could generate and tolerate self-examination that, too, was new and promising.

Another hope lay in the southern liberals themselves: Virginius Dabney of Richmond, Jonathan Daniels of Raleigh, Mark Ethridge of Louisville, Harry Ashmore of Little Rock, Hodding Carter of Greenville, Mississippi, and Ralph McGill of Atlanta. What these men were saying was very appealing to people outside the South: that the South would solve its own problems if it were only given time, if only “force” wasn’t used.

This view of the racial problem fitted in with the national sentiment on its solution. It was taken for granted that the white man would solve the racial problem on his own ground, make the approach to the blacks, choose what he would give in on, what he would not, and, above all, when. Another assumption was that the racial problem was wholly southern. Negroes in the North, it was assumed, already had their “rights.”

If that was the way it was going to work out, then much depended on the southern liberals. If the South was going to be allowed to solve the problem itself, step by step, with white people determining what steps to take and when, it was necessary to believe that there were people in the South who would, if only the right set of conditions could be created, act responsibly in the crisis that seemed to be coming, just as they responsibly went to the First Baptist Church on Sunday and Rotary at noon on Monday.

Wasn’t it a reasonable assumption that there were “good people” in the South? Weren’t those liberals speaking to somebody? The Supreme Court thought so, and, in its 1954 decision on the schools, said desegregation might take place at “deliberate speed,” to give these good people and their liberal leaders the chance to bring about the decreed social change moderately, peacefully, within the South, by southerners themselves, the gradual democratic way. Suddenly the South had the best opportunity it had ever had to deal with the greatest problem of its history.

Not one of those liberals looked better than McGill. Why, he had been All-Southern guard at Vanderbilt, a sports writer, a regular good ol’ boy, who drank a little too much moon-shine, was said to know every boot-legger in Nashville. Impeccable southern credentials. As for his liberal side, he was a mountain boy from East Tennessee where lots of people never had slaves, where some, it was said, didn’t know a nigger from a Cherokee. McGill was thought to have gone through a kind of conversion in the hard-scrabble Thirties; he had turned to writing about sharecroppers, got a Rosenwald Fellowship, went to Europe, had his social conscience awakened by seeing some of Hitler’s Brown Shirts beating up people in a street brawl.

But Brown Shirts in Germany and white sharecroppers make one kind of social problem for a southerner, and changing the status of the black man quite another. McGill wrote, a few weeks before the decision: “I personally hope the Supreme Court will not disturb segregation in the common schools.” When the Court’s decision was announced he was in London where a friend of his, Gene Patterson, later to be McGill’s managing editor in Atlanta, was working in the London UPI bureau. Patterson called McGill for his reaction to the Court’s decision, expecting to hear from McGill some manifesto of moderation to the South. According to Martin,

All McGill said was, “I am surprised that the vote was unanimous.”

Paterson waited—“Yes?”

I think that is all I want to say at this time,” said McGill. “Thank you for calling me.” He hung up the phone.

Brown vs. Board of Education was enough for McGill and for southern liberalism. From then on, from 1954 until at least 1964, the southern liberals faded from sight. Some of them went North. Some retreated into jobs that did not require them to take a stand. I know of only one of the prominent southern liberals who spoke out consistently; and no group of southerners gave rational leadership to the white South. Perhaps I should mention the exception, Lillian Smith, who was, if not a leader, an example of a white southerner whose humanity was stronger than her fear of any reprisal. I still vividly remember her talking to a group of young “Snick” organizers who had to crowd up against the side of her car to listen to her because she was by then too weak and ill to get out. She had her disagreements with them. But I doubt that there was another white person in the South they would have treated with the same respect.

As for McGill, Martin writes of his “need to go wherever the news led him, anywhere, anytime,” i.e., to Europe, to Africa, to Washington, sometimes weekly, on cross-country junkets following political campaigns, hobnobbing with Adlai Stevenson and Carl Sandburg and other political and literary celebrities. He did not go to Selma, to Birmingham, to Little Rock, to Greenwood, Mississippi, or to St. Augustine, Florida, or to any of the places where white and black southerners were meeting each other head on. Mr. Martin has subtitled his book, “Reporter,” but McGill would not travel in the South and cover the story.

Martin was one of McGill’s closest friends and yet this is his devastating estimate of McGill:

In his more than thirty years in the business, McGill had built up an unerring instinct for survival, and whatever his deep-held personal convictions might be, he was not going to render himself voiceless by pushing either his readers or his bosses too far.

McGill defended the Vietnam war. He had moved so far from the Negro cause that he suspected that its leaders were tainted with communism. Before he died, he began to exchange information on them with the FBI. Perhaps one reason he and most southern liberals failed to be liberal in the South was that the South has no middle ground. When it comes to race, there are few “good white people.” We once heard that there was a growing southern middle class that would be more “educated,” “pragmatic,” and “tolerant” on the race question; but by those standards there is no middle-class South—not yet, not even in the suburbs of Atlanta and Charlotte.

There are hundreds of thousands of white southerners who seem to be middle-class and perhaps are in almost every way except when they are called on to express in action their racial attitudes—and of course that is almost daily, for race impinges on everything that happens in southern life. As far as the South is concerned there are still three traditional classes, the Niggers, the White Trash, and the Old Families—and is there any reason to be surprised that most white southerners like to believe they are from an Old Family, aristocrats who have a stake in the Old South, in the “southern way of life,” in preserving the image of the black man as their servant? Their happy servant?

Gunnar Myrdal, writing in the 1940s, saw the southern liberals as “the cultural façade of the South.” He saw how they had “developed the tactics of evading principles, of cajoling, coaxing and luring the public to give in on minor issues,” and that “their main weakness” is their “lack of mass support.”

One day not too long before his death, I stopped in McGill’s office to “talk around a little bit.” He told me he had just been to a staff meeting where people kept referring to his newspaper as “the product.” He unloaded other troubles about the paper on me. He told me that he was “ashamed” to recommend to a young black protégée of his that she try to get a job on the Constitution, because the paper’s hiring policies were so bigoted. By that time he had no real power in management or in editorial matters, and we both knew it. He might have made a fight over the paper’s policies, perhaps resigned over them. But he told me, “I’m just despondent.” The young woman never went to work on the Constitution or any other southern paper. She had a job in a post office for a while and then left the South.