© 2020 Bryan Dowd
Today, I would guess that not many people outside of the South could tell you who Ralph McGill was, and among those who can, most are probably over the age of sixty. McGill served as editor and publisher of the Atlanta Constitution newspaper from 1938 until his death in 1969. He is best known for his 10,000-plus editorials, especially those written during the height of the Civil Rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s. He won the Pulitzer Prize in 1959 for his collection of editorials following the Jewish Temple bombing in Atlanta in 1958.
If you read McGill’s editorials today, you will be struck by the continued relevance of the subject matter. Take a look at A Church, A School, published on the front page of the Constitution the day after the Temple bombing (https://www.ajc.com/news/opinion/denunciation-1958-atlanta-temple-bombing-still-relevant-today/vNcpDVZ5E0KT7Mkm4YDiQK/). Regardless of your age, race, religion, or political persuasion, you are likely to find yourself asking, “He couldn’t be talking about me, could he?”
One of McGill’s favorite targets was Southern white Christian pastors. He referred to acts of terrorism as a “harvest;” a “crop of things sown.” Regarding the Temple bombing, he wrote in 1958:
This, too, is a harvest of those so-called Christian ministers who have chosen to preach hate instead of compassion. Let them now find pious words and raise their hands in deploring the bombing of a synagogue. You do not preach and encourage hatred for the Negro and hope to restrict it to that field. It is an old, old story. It is one repeated over and over again in history. When the wolves of hate are loosed on one people, then no one is safe.”
I was eight years old in 1958, and not very politically astute. I thought “Impeach Earl Warren,” must have something to do with living in the Peach State. But in my teens, I and the rest of the South read McGill’s editorials week after week, year after year. The unrelenting message was that too many white Christians read the Bible on Sunday, but then suffered selective amnesia when they encountered their Black neighbors on Monday, and that behavior was blameworthy. It was an effective message for two reasons. First, most white Christians knew that McGill was right; and second, they shared a common understanding about the penalty associated with unrepentant, blameworthy, behavior.
I believe that McGill’s editorials had a direct effect on Southern culture and were responsible, in part, for the peaceful integration of businesses, government, and the public school system in my hometown and many others in the South. (In Minnesota, you would have read only about the violent confrontations.) Today, Ralph McGill Boulevard and Martin Luther King, Jr. Drive run together through downtown Atlanta.
My concern is that we may have seen the last of the Ralph McGills, at least for a while. It isn’t because there are no good and courageous newspaper editors and publishers. I expect there are many. The problem is not with them. The problem is with us. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Ralph McGill appealed to moral absolutes backed up by the eternal consequences of running afoul of them. It’s unlikely that approach would be effective today, and it isn’t clear what widely shared moral precept would take its place
Perhaps it’s time for a difficult question. If we had to defend the concept of “justice for all,” what would we say? The Greek and Roman enslavers didn’t think justice for all was such a great idea. Marx had some very odd ideas about what constituted justice and who constituted “all.” You won’t find any defense of justice for all in Nietzsche or among the progressives whose enthusiasm for eugenics in the early 20th century was labeled The War on the Weak by New York Times writer Edwin Black. There’s nothing to support justice for all in naturalism or scientism. It’s in our Pledge of Allegiance, but that was written by a Baptist minister. The Constitution which is meant to bind us together as a nation is now said to be “fluid” at best, and at worst, hopelessly anachronistic and an impediment to good social policy.
Maybe today’s reformers think it is unnecessary to answer difficult questions. Perhaps they would say that it’s only about power – who has it and who doesn’t. If that’s the case, then I think we’re left with the verdict rendered by that great political philosopher, Pete Townsend: “Meet the new boss. Just the same as the old boss.”
Bryan Dowd is a professor in the Division of Health Policy and Management at the University of Minnesota. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.