Ralph Emerson McGill

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McGILL, Ralph Emerson

(b. 5 February 1898 near Soddy, Tennessee; d. 3 February 1969 in Atlanta, Georgia), reporter, editor, publisher, nationally syndicated political columnist, and civil rights campaigner.

McGill was the eldest of six children born to Benjamin Franklin McGill, a coal miner, and Mary Lou Skillern, a homemaker, on a farm in Igou's Ferry, Tennessee. A sickly child, he began his formal education at the age of eight, when he attended the Fourth District School of Highland Park, Chattanooga. As his health improved, McGill was made captain of the football team at the McCallie Preparatory School, Chattanooga, where he studied between 1913 and 1917. He attended Vanderbilt University between 1917 and 1922, taking time off between 1918 and 1919 to serve in the U.S. Marine Corps during World War I. During his college years McGill was a member of the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) and the Sigma Chi fraternity. He played tackle on the football team, joined a literary group called the Fugitives (along with future novelist Robert Penn Warren and poets Allen Tate and Merrill Moore), and ran bootleg liquor to make extra money. He was a cub reporter for the Nashville Banner and wrote for the university paper the Hustler, where his talent for challenging authority began to emerge. One of his editorials for the Hustler accused the university trustees of embezzlement and won McGill a suspension. Although he did not graduate from Vanderbilt, over the course of his life McGill received fourteen honorary degrees, thirteen of which were awarded in the 1960s.

McGill continued to write for the Nashville Banner after college, and in 1929 he married Mary Elizabeth Leonard, with whom he had two daughters and a son. That same year he became assistant sports editor at the Atlanta Constitution, eventually progressing to executive editor in 1938. His first act as executive editor was to rule that the Constitution would always print the word Negro with a capital N, to give the title its proper authority. McGill was appointed editor in chief in 1942. The Atlantic Monthly called the Constitution under his leadership "one of the most influential newspapers on the Atlantic seaboard."

In the 1930s and 1940s McGill built a reputation as a staunch advocate for civil rights, becoming known as the "conscience of the South." He was critical of the "baronial autocrats" he saw corrupting and dominating the political systems of the South, using the position of "states' rights" to keep the South in "a backward and isolationist position." Yet although many southern readers found his editorials offensive, northern liberals thought McGill was timid and predictable. His reputation in the North was perhaps damaged by his technique of interspersing campaigns for civil rights and racial equality with lighthearted editorials. It was a technique that kept McGill in work, enabling him to become, by the late 1950s, one of the most influential and respected newspapermen in the United States. In 1959 he received a Pulitzer Prize for an editorial about the bombing of an Atlanta synagogue and was cited for his "long, courageous and effective editorial leadership."

By the 1960s McGill's influence on American politics and public life was profound. To avoid mandatory retirement as the editor of the Constitution, he became the publisher of the paper in 1960, a position that allowed him to continue writing his editorial column. By then he was directly involved in politics and a well-known figure in political and civil rights circles. In 1960 he accompanied Vice President Richard M. Nixon to Russia, met President-elect John F. Kennedy, received the Lauterbach Award "for distinguished service in the field of civil liberties," and was named a member of the Pulitzer Prize Advisory Board. In 1961 he was awarded an honorary LL.D from Harvard University. It was inscribed, "In a troubled time his steady voice of reason champions a New South."

McGill's wife died in 1962, leaving him to raise their only surviving child Ralph, Jr., then aged seventeen. They traveled to Japan on a trip funded by the Asian Foundation so that McGill could attend a series of seminars with Japanese university and newspaper people. He married Dr. Mary Lynn Morgan, a dentist twenty-three years his junior, in 1967.

In 1963 McGill received seven honorary degrees, served on presidential committees in the Kennedy Administration, and traveled to West Africa for the State Department to speak about race relations in America. He also published his fourth compilation of columns, The South and the Southerner.

In 1963 Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., began his nonviolent demonstrations in Birmingham, Alabama, and it was a great embarrassment to McGill that the Constitution did not lead with coverage of these events. McGill was as widely known among black leaders as he was among white politicians. He had connections among journalists who kept him informed about groups such as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), and the Council of Federated Organizations (COFO), where the rhetoric of the Black Power movement was gaining support. After the bombing of an Alabama church that killed four children, McGill took a new, harder line with segregationists in his columns, raising his profile still further as a champion of civil rights and an outspoken critic of racial injustice in all its forms. In 1964 McGill was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Lyndon B. Johnson, the highest civilian honor in the United States, and in the following year received the Eleanor Roosevelt Humanities Award.

In the mid-1960s McGill became a committed supporter of U.S. involvement in Vietnam. In characteristically direct style, McGill traveled to Vietnam in 1966 to talk with the authorities and visit the front line, an experience that confirmed his belief that the war was justified. On his return to the United States he spoke out in favor of continuing U.S. commitment to the war.

The assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Senator Robert F. Kennedy in 1968 fell as heavy blows for McGill. A personal friend of Kennedy's, McGill saw his assassination as "but another exhibit of the steady growth of violence as part of the mosaic of our national culture." He traveled to Russia for a second time, returning to cover both political conventions of 1968.

McGill's career as a journalist covered some of the most turbulent years of American social history. As an outspoken advocate of liberty and freedom, he became one of the key commentators and campaigners of the 1950s and 1960s. His column was nationally syndicated for over twenty years. McGill summarized the ups and downs of the civil rights movement since 1954, "The critical national problems are our poor and our unprepared. Apartheid is not the answer. We have tried that already." McGill died of heart failure and is buried in Westview Cemetery in Atlanta.

McGill's papers are in the Woodruff Library, Emory University. His fourth book, The South and the Southerner (1963), is largely autobiographical. A biography of McGill by one of his colleagues at the Constitution is Harold H. Martin, Ralph McGill, Reporter (1973). McGill published several compilations of columns during the 1950s, including A Church, A School (1959), containing his Pulitzer Prize–winning editorial. Obituaries are in the Atlanta Constitution and New York Times (both 4 Feb. 1969).

Annmarie B. Singh

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Ralph Emerson McGill

The American journalist Ralph Emerson McGill (1898-1969) was the 1959 Pulitzer prize winner for his editorials on race, desegregation, and Southern politics—views that made him and the Atlanta Constitution major symbols of Southern liberalism.

Ralph McGill was born on February 3, 1898, on a farm in eastern Tennessee. When he was six the family moved to Chattanooga and lived on a farm bequeathed by his grandfather. McGill's father, who influenced his son with a passion for learning and who had changed his own name from Benjamin Wallace to Benjamin Franklin McGill, took a job as a salesman for a small heating and roofing company. The son's middle name came in honor of a friend who was a devotee of Ralph Waldo Emerson. McGill always had happy memories of his childhood and of his family, including his mother, Mary Lou Skillern McGill.

The region of his boyhood undoubtedly influenced McGill's later views. McGill recalled that "I lived in history," surrounded by monuments and memorabilia of the Civil War and its nearby battlefields. But Chattanooga was never a die-hard Southern city, and eastern Tennessee, a non-slaveholding area, had dominant Republican Party and Union sympathies. McGill's grandfathers had taken opposite sides in the war, and his parents had opposing party loyalties.

McGill, who customarily as a boy walked the two miles to the nearest library, pursued his education at McCallie Preparatory School, where he also played football. In 1917 he entered Vanderbilt University in Nashville, although he did not complete his undergraduate studies. At the university McGill befriended several people who forged the literary group known as the "Fugitives," although McGill did not join the group. He was especially close to Allen Tate and lived next door to Robert Penn Warren. Here also McGill found his enthusiasm for journalism with work on the campus paper the Hustler and part-time work with the city paper the Banner. In 1929 he joined the staff of the Atlanta Constitution as a sports writer, but he also covered other subjects, such as his stories on the Ku Klux Klan that he derived from personal interviews. In 1938 McGill became executive editor of the paper and in 1942 publisher.

At the Atlanta Constitution McGill was an appropriate distant successor to Henry W. Grady who in the 1880s had made the paper the vehicle of his "New South" philosophy, for McGill also championed a new South. He saw the region dominated by a series of local baronial autocrats who exploited the people they controlled and thrived from the corrupt political systems they nourished. McGill saw education and economic growth as the key to the South's progressive future but despaired that these forces of change could be generated from the inside. He consequently hailed migration into the South from outside and looked to new businessmen in the region to form a countervailing political voice to the regressive demagogues in the state capitals. McGill often breathed contempt for the Old South myths and remarked that the Confederate flag, worn on the black jackets of long-haired motorcyclists, had become a symbol of the social outcast. McGill constantly assailed Southern political leadership for its yielding to mob emotions and its failure to foster rational public dialogue on the day's critical issues.

McGill particularly recoiled from the outmoded recourse to "state's rights" by Southern politicians. This ancient shibboleth, he believed, had kept the South, from the antebellum years, through the Confederacy, and into the 20th century, in a backward and isolationist condition with respect to the rest of the nation. The dogma was essentially a cover for racism, he added, and he depicted Alabama Governor George Wallace as one who exploited the anachronism in inflammatory fashion. In the school integration crisis that struck the South in the late 1950s and the early 1960s McGill spoke out courageously for racial integration and won national attention for his efforts. He tried painstakingly to defuse the racial aspects of the issue by joining desegregation to the cause of children's education and the hope of lifting both black and white children of the South from the region's shameful record in public education.

Although some people found that McGill's views became tiresomely predictable, he was not a simple person. He wrote with a sense of irony about Southern life and appreciated the complexity of its history. He had a love of poetry that made his essays impassioned, sometimes lyrical, and always readable. He could be bitingly caustic, and his confrontational style was answered with the mean and degrading harrassment and intimidation that he and his family suffered from militant segregationists. McGill immersed himself in Southern history and could cite dates, statistics, and events for his editorial commentaries. He did some of his best and most interesting writing on Southern personalities past and present. His essays on Tom Watson, for example, show McGill's sense of the terrible irony of Southern history. In the story of this populist turned racist, McGill saw the liberal and progressive forces of the South succumb to the darker and more powerful hatred that ultimately consumed Watson and left a bitter legacy in Southern politics.

McGill, raised a Presbyterian, became an Episcopalian. He was married three times, his first two wives preceding him in death, and he had three children. McGill died February 5, 1969.

Further Reading

Much has been written about McGill, but one may best begin with his own partly autobiographical account, The South and the Southerner (1969), a prize-winning book that contains many reflections on Southern life and history. Southern Encounters: Southerners of Note in Ralph McGill's South (1983), edited by Calvin M. Logue, has McGill essays on a variety of people from Martin Luther King, Jr. to Lester Maddox. Some of the best of McGill's essays appeared in Saturday Review, including "The Case for the Southern Progressive" (June 13, 1964), "The Decade of Slow, Painful Progress" (May 16, 1964), and "Race: Results Instead of Reasons" (January 9, 1965). A comprehensive biography, with details of McGill's professional and private life, is Harold H. Martin's Ralph McGill, Reporter (1973). Also useful is Logue, Ralph McGill: Editor and Publisher (1969). □