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Remembering Eugene Patterson and the Power of His Words

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Tampa Bay Times archives

Former Tampa Bay Times editor and civil rights advocate Eugene Patterson died this past weekend at the age of 89 after being treated for cancer.

Patterson was a Pulitzer Prize-winning editor and columnist.

One of his most memorable columns was written after the church bombing in Birmingham, Ala., that killed four girls in 1963. His column appeared in the Atlanta Constitution Sept. 16, 1963 the day after the bombing at the black church. It was titled "A Flower for the Graves." That evening CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite invited Patterson to read it on the broadcast.

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.

You can read his full award-winning essay here.

Eugene Roberts, former executive editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer, called that Patterson column one of the "great moments of American commentary":

Patterson was a confident voice for humanity and sanity during a very tense era in the South. He had this almost incredible magic within him.

You can listen NPR's to David Folkenflik report on the highlights about Patternson's journalism career and the impact of his editorial writing.

On the website of the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, you can read more of what Patterson's colleagues are writing about him, a World War II tank commander in George S. Patton's Third Army.

Patterson will be buried at Arlington National Cemetery.