Raised on a Georgia farm, he worked at small-town newspapers in Texas and Georgia as a young man, and although he moved up to wire service jobs in New York and London, he had been steeped in the droll wit annd down-home sociability of the South.
There were no simple solutions to the racial problems, and he offered none. Instead, he drew poignant scenes of suffering and loss to condemn violence and miscarriages of justice. And he explored themes of courage and questions of responsibility that went beyond mindless acts of racism to challenge a people with traditions of decency.
At the ruins of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., where a bomb killed four girls on Sept. 15, 1963, he crafted his most famous column, “A Flower for the Graves." Walter Cronkite was so moved that he asked Patterson to read it on the “CBS Evening News."
He also protested the Georgia Legislature’s refusal to seat Julian Bond, the black civil rights leader, for opposing U.S. involvement in Vietnam and supporting draft resisters. His exclusion was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1966, and Bond served 20 years in the Legislature.
Patterson joined The Washington Post in 1968 as managing editor, succeeding Benjamin Bradlee, who became executive editor. The two led the newsroom in June 1971 when The Post followed The New York Times in publishing the Pentagon Papers, the secret study of U.S. duplicity in Indochina. Nixon administration challenges to both publications were struck down in a historic Supreme Court ruling.
Later in 1971, Patterson left The Post and taught for a year at Duke University. In 1972 he became editor of The St. Petersburg Times (now known as The Tampa Bay Times) and two sister publications, The Evening Independent in St. Petersburg and Congressional Quarterly, covering the government in Washington. After the death of the publications’ owner, Nelson Poynter, in 1978, he became the company’s chairman until his own retirement in 1988.