Disrupters & Interlopers: Ralph McGill

Ralph McGill was the editor and publisher of the Atlanta Constitution newspaper, and from the late 1930s through the late 1960s his strong support for social justice and progress in race relations led some to call him “the conscience of the South.” McGill was born in 1898 in rural Tennessee, served in the Marine Corps, went to Vanderbilt, and entered journalism in the 1920s as a sports writer. He came to work at the Constitution in 1929.

During his time at the Atlanta Constitution, McGill wrote thousands of editorials and won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing in 1959. This passage from his 1963 book, The South and the Southerner, gives a sense of his stance on the racial issues of his day:

The solution is relatively simple if we would but admit to ourselves. It is no longer as complicated as it was. Much of the undergrowth of myth and self-deceit has been cleared away. The clamor of mongrelization of race, of supremacy, of tradition has ceased, but more and more it is known to be noise, not fact. The problems were aggravated because they were made into more than they were. The remedy is no longer as difficult. It is to grant the Negro the rights and privileges of full citizenship. It is to look at the Negro and see another human being. (232)

Ralph McGill died in 1969 of a heart attack. Though his ideas on race and justice may not have been embraced in his day, he is now celebrated as a champion of Southern progressive ideals. In the 1970s, the City of Atlanta honored him by changing the name of Forrest Boulevard (for Ku Klux Klan founder Nathan Bedford Forrest) to be Ralph McGill Boulevard. He has also been included in the National Parks Service’s Civil Rights Walk of Fame.

The Disrupters & Interlopers series highlights lesser-known individuals from Southern history whose actions, though unpopular or difficult, contributed to changing the old status quo. To read previous posts, click any of the links below:

Joan Little

Juliette Hampton Morgan

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