Ralph McGill – New Georgia Encyclopedia

Ralph McGill, as editor and publisher of the Atlanta Constitutionwas a leading voice for racial and ethnic tolerance in the South from the 1940s to the 1960s.

As an influential daily columnist, McGill broke the code of silence on the subject of segregation, chastising a generation of demagogues, timid journalists and ministers who feared change. When the U.S. Supreme Court banned segregated schools in 1954 and Southern demagogues challenged the court, segregationists vilified McGill as a traitor to its region for urging white Southerners to accept an end to segregation . In 1959, at the age of sixty-one, he received the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing.

Early life

Ralph Emerson McGill was born on February 5, 1898 in the isolated farming community of Igou’s Ferry, about twenty miles north of Chattanooga, Tennessee. He was the second son (the first died in infancy) of Mary Lou Skillern and Benjamin Franklin McGill. McGill graduated from the McCallie School in Chattanooga and between 1917 and 1922 (with a break from service in the US Marines in 1918-19) attended Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, but did not graduate. In his senior year, he was suspended after writing a column in the student newspaper that suggested wrongdoing because Vanderbilt failed to erect a student lounge, as stipulated in the will of a professor who bequeathed 20 $000 to school. McGill might have appealed to resume his studies, but he had found a full-time job as a reporter for the Nashville Bannerand as a colleague noted, “the degree didn’t mean much to him.”

During the 1920s, McGill became the Banner‘s sportswriter and sports columnist, but he eagerly sought opportunities to break away from the seasonal sports routine to cover murder trials and political campaigns. Friendships with other southern sports journalists led him in 1929 to the Atlanta Constitution, as assistant sportswriter and later sportswriter and columnist. Also in 1929, McGill married Mary Elizabeth Leonard, the daughter of a dentist, whom he met while interviewing his brother, a football star Vanderbilt. They had a daughter, who died a few days after her birth. Shortly after, the couple adopted a baby girl, and she died a few years later of leukemia. A son, Ralph Jr., was born in 1945. McGill’s wife died in 1962, and in 1967 McGill married Mary Lynn Morgan, a children’s dentist from Atlanta.

Early career in Atlanta

McGill’s distinct writing voice established him as a popular talent, giving morning Constitution an advantage over the two afternoon newspapers, the Atlanta Georgianowned by the William Randolph Hearst chain, and the Atlanta Journal. As in Nashville, his enormous energy and sense of timing secured him opportunities to write about serious topics. In 1933, he achieved his first breakthrough in international journalism, persuading the Constitution to send him to cover the Cuban revolution. His dated articles, including an exclusive interview with dictator Gerardo Machado days before he fled, were featured on the newspaper’s front page, making McGill a serious journalist.

McGill completed his transformation into serious journalism after winning a Rosenwald Fellowship, which enabled him to study and write from Europe during the first six months of 1938. From Vienna, Austria, his stories in front page of Adolf Hitler’s takeover of this country earned him a promoted editorial page editor upon his return to Atlanta.

From June 1938 until his death in February 1969, McGill wrote more than 10,000 columns daily. In 1942, he was promoted to editor of the Constitution, and in 1960 to the publisher. For much of his career, he was an isolated voice in Atlanta journalism, breaking the white code of polite silence on social and educational segregation and political disenfranchisement – the so-called situation, or “sitch “.

Southern Consciousness

Between 1938 and 1954, McGill bravely portrayed the failure of the South to respect the “separate but equal” decision of the United States Supreme Court in 1896. Without advocating integration, he described the deplorable conditions of black schools in Georgia, comparing their budgets for books and buildings with those of white schools. In the political arena, he noted that one day African-American voters would have considerable influence.

Ralph McGill

McGill realized that he could not write tirelessly about civil rights while retaining his audience. In sports writing, he had chronicled pitchers who cleverly shuffled their pitches, and he adopted this pattern: He shuffled his columns, writing one day about the barbecue, then a charity, then a worthy citizen. news from Atlanta, then a sports column, then, again, the “sitch”. A notable 1953 column, “Someday It Will Be Monday,” foreshadowed the Supreme Court’s decision that would outlaw the system of dual societies: “So someone, especially those who have a duty to do so, should in talk. calmly and informatively.

For such comments, segregationists vilified him. They phoned his home and wrote letters, often with misspelled words, which he found somewhat humorous and shared with his small group of like-minded publisher “brothers” across the South, including Harry Ashmore at Arkansas Gazette and William C. “Bill” Baggs at Miami News. Segregationists called McGill “Rastus,” a communist, a traitor. His colleague Jack Tarver noted that the Constitution‘s polls showed that readers were evenly split between those who liked it and those who insulted it, that some couldn’t have lunch without reading McGill and others couldn’t have lunch after reading it.

All these emotions erupted after the Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954. The US Supreme Court’s decision and resistance from Southern governors drove the issue of segregation from the sanctuary of silence. McGill sided with the law of the land, which meant a radical reorientation of a society that for generations maintained legal segregation from the rest of the nation.

In the late 1950s and 1960s, McGill underwent another career transformation, becoming a national voice as a union circulated its column in hundreds of newspapers. With his national audience in mind, McGill traveled frequently to Washington, D.C. As a lifelong Democrat, he had a career in politics from within under the administrations of U.S. Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson. Both presidents sent him on a Cold War ambassadorial trip to newly independent countries in Africa to persuade leaders that the United States was working to address their civil rights issues.

Intimacy with the presidency had a downside. McGill, as a staunch Democrat and former Marine, was unwilling to criticize the American war in Vietnam. In general, he was more likely to be right about what was closest to his heart and soul – the South – than about the other worlds he touched – distant cultures where he was not a citizen but a resident.

Two things were clear to grateful McGill contemporaries. The first was that he tirelessly spoke and wrote what he thought and felt, and in doing so he inspired others to break the silence. He had the facility of a poet with the language and the ease of a journalist with the medium. During the last months of his life, he repeated a central article of faith: “the desire for individual dignity and freedom. . . is in the genes of all mankind.

The second reality was its fundamental intellectualism – an endless appetite for scholarship. Few public men read as diligently as McGill, and few understood so much and communicated it to such a vast audience, an audience often unprepared and frequently hostile. McGill consciously used his mind methodically, he developed habits that made his mind work tirelessly, and he found the conditions that encouraged him to study, write, and publish daily.

Book publications

McGill published four books during his career. The first three consisted mostly of compilations of his newspaper columns. One of these three, A church, a school (1959), included his editorials on the Temple bombing in Atlanta and Ku Klux Klan hate crimes. It was these editorials for which McGill won the Pulitzer Prize in 1959.

His most notable book is The South and the Southernerfirst published in 1963. A selective memoir of his upbringing in East Tennessee and various facets of his journalistic career, it is also a much broader social commentary and acerbic critique of the South, past and present , although it also reflects his optimism for the region’s capacity for gradual change.

McGill died suddenly of a heart attack in Atlanta on February 3, 1969, just two days before his seventy-first birthday. In 2004 he was inducted into the Georgia Writers Hall of Fame.

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