Back Road: Revisiting ‘A flower for the Graves’

Back Road: Revisiting ‘A flower for the Graves’

Andrew Malekoff

Recently, I was reminded of Eugene Patterson’s most celebrated newspaper column “A Flower for the Graves,” written in response to the deadly violence carried out during the 1960s civil rights movement. Patterson was a Pulitzer Prize-winning editor of the Atlanta Constitution.

Patterson’s Jan. 12, 2013 New York Times obituary began by citing the following passage from his column: “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.”

Patterson penned the column on September 16, 1963, after white supremacists bombed the 16th Street Baptist Church one day earlier, killing four girls — Addie Mae Collins (14), Carol Denise McNair (11), Carole Rosamond Robertson (14), and Cynthia Dionne Wesley (14). Walter Cronkite read Patterson’s column to a national audience on the “CBS Evening News.”

“Our lesson for that Sunday morning was a love that forgives,” recalled church secretary Carolyn McKinstry. “It was youth Sunday,” she said, “Everyone was excited about that.”

Following, I highlight excerpts from Patterson’s piece that might resonate in the light of what we are facing today, 60 years later: “We — who go on electing politicians who heat the kettles of hate; We — who raise no hand to silence the mean and little men who have their n—er jokes; We — who stand aside in imagined rectitude and let the mad dogs that run in every society slide their leashes from our hand, and spring.”

Is it not abundantly clear that we are represented today in Washington D.C. by individuals who routinely “heat the kettles of hate,” without the needed pushback to hinder their attempts to delegitimize the government institutions charged with holding them accountable?

In his essay Patterson spoke to the dire consequences of apathy and inaction: “We are the ones who have ducked the difficult, skirted the uncomfortable…resented the necessary, rationalized the unacceptable, and created the day surely when these children would die.”

Presently, with rare exception, our elected representatives and millions of Americans are silent about the threat we continue to face, after more than 60 years of activists working to aerate the common ground in our commitment to advancing civil rights.

“Let us not lay the blame on some brutal fool who didn’t know any better,” wrote Patterson, suggesting that the Birmingham church perpetrator felt like a hero to his like-minded comrades engaged in advancing a climate for child killing.

With respect to Donald Trump inciting violence, his threatening rhetoric has evolved in seven years from: “Lock her (Hillary Clinton) up” (2016), to “Hang Mike Pence” (2021), to “Execute General Milley” (2023). These catchphrases and others are employed to advance political violence that leads to dictatorship and authoritarian rule.

“We know better. We created the day. We bear the judgment,” wrote Patterson. “May God have mercy…(and) we will rise to this challenge of racial understanding and common humanity, and in the full power of its unasserted courage, assert itself.”

“History never repeats itself, but it does often rhyme,” noted Mark Twain.

Sixty years later, it’s one step forward, two steps back.

Time to step on the accelerator toward 2024.

Holding one small shoe in our hands.


Patterson’s column can be accessed at this link:

Gene Patterson’s most famous column: ‘A Flower for the Graves’

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