A Flower for the Graves
Gene Patterson's column "A Flower for the Graves" was considered one of the great editor's great achievements. It was published in his Atlanta Constitution on Sept. 16, 1963 after four girls were murdered in an Birmingham church bombing. Walter Cronkite of CBS asked Patterson to read his column aloud on the evening news.
"When he told the story, Patterson would describe how he wrote from his home with tears streaming down his face and his own young daughter nearby," Roy Peter Clark wrote in Patterson's Journal-Constitution obit on Jan. 13, 3012.
Below are excerpts from the column. You can read it in its entirety on the Journal-Constitution's web site, AJC.com.
A Negro mother wept in the street Sunday morning in front of a Baptist Church in Birmingham. In her hand she held a shoe, one shoe, from the foot of her dead child. We hold that shoe with her.
Every one of us in the white South holds that small shoe in his hand.
It is too late to blame the sick criminals who handled the dynamite. The FBI and the police can deal with that kind. The charge against them is simple. They killed four children.
Only we can trace the truth, Southerner — you and I. We broke those children’s bodies. . . .
We hold that shoe in our hand, Southerner. Let us see it straight, and look at the blood on it. Let us compare it with the unworthy speeches of Southern public men who have traduced the Negro; match it with the spectacle of shrilling children whose parents and teachers turned them free to spit epithets at small huddles of Negro school children for a week before this Sunday in Birmingham; hold up the shoe and look beyond it to the state house in Montgomery where the official attitudes of Alabama have been spoken in heat and anger. . . .
The Sunday school play at Birmingham is ended. With a weeping Negro mother, we stand in the bitter smoke and hold a shoe. If our South is ever to be what we wish it to be, we will plant a flower of nobler resolve for the South now upon these four small graves that we dug.