Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Ralph McGill combined an omnivorous literary intellect, a keen storyteller's sense, and a crack reporter's speed to become Georgia's most influential journalist of the twentieth century. During forty years at the Atlanta Constitution as an editor, publisher, and daily columnist, he built a national following as a white Southern editor who questioned segregation and challenged the demagogues who exploited it. His journalistic courage and his gift of clear, moving moral expression earned McGill a reputation as "the conscience of the South."
Born in the small farming community of Igou's Ferry, near Soddy, Tennessee, young Ralph Emerson McGill wrote for student publications at both the McCallie School (Chattanooga) and at Vanderbilt University (Nashville). Before leaving college, McGill began covering sports, politics, and crime for the Nashville Banner, which he eventually joined full-time in 1922. In 1923 he became the Banner's sports editor, which is where he got his first experience as a daily columnist, writing "The Sport Aerial." He also traveled regularly to distant cities on game assignments, an experience that prefigured a lifetime habit of peripatetic journalism.
After moving to the Atlanta Constitution in 1929 as assistant sports editor, McGill convinced the Constitution's editors to send him to cover the Cuban revolution, an assignment that whetted his appetite and bolstered his credentials for general news coverage. In 1937 he won a Rosenwald fellowship to travel and study first-hand Scandinavian farm marketing and rural schools. Before he left Europe McGill traveled through Germany and Austria, where he filed reports for the Constitution on Adolf Hitler's Nazi politics. The trip produced McGill's first book, Two Georgians Explore Scandinavia (cowritten with Thomas C. David, for Georgia State Department of Education) in 1938.
That same year McGill became the Constitution's executive editor in charge of news, sports, society pages, and his 'Break O Day' sports column led to his general news 'One Word More' column on the daily editorial page. In 1942, the Constitution named him editor-in-chief, and McGill quickly gained a national reputation through his editorial support of progressive gubernatorial candidate Ellis Arnall, who defeated the three-term segregationist governor Eugene Talmadge. Much in the way of Henry Grady, who had campaigned for a "New South" in the post-Reconstruction Georgia, McGill became known beyond as a voice for a more modern Georgia. His causes included Southern farming reform, abolition of Georgia's county-unit electoral system, and a moderate but committed effort to eliminate segregation.
By the late 1940s, McGill's essays appeared regularly in national magazines such as Saturday Review, Saturday Evening Post, New Republic, and Atlantic Monthly. During this time McGill published his sole piece of fiction, a short story about police racism for Harpers entitled "She'll Talk Later." In the 1950s, McGill's already sizable audience became a daily, nationwide one. The Constitution was purchased by the Cox newspaper chain in 1950, and McGill's columns began to be distributed to other Cox papers. In 1953 the Constitution moved his popular column to its front page, and in 1957 the North American Newspaper Alliance agreed to syndicate McGill in sixty newspapers nationally.
In 1959 the Pulitzer Prize Committee awarded McGill their 1958 prize for editorial writing. Praising his 'courageous and effective editorial leadership' of the Constitution, the committee cited McGill's 1958 editorials for their "clearness of style, moral purpose, sound reasoning and power to influence public opinion." In particular, they singled out McGill's editorial "A Church, A School," which was a denunciation not only of the "rabid, mad-dog minds" of racist terror bombers, but also of the Southern opinion leaders "politicians and journalists especially" who McGill felt had had abused their positions of influence and inflamed public opinion against court-ordered desegregation. "It is not possible," McGill wrote, "to preach lawlessness and restrict it."
In 1960, McGill was named publisher of the Constitution, a title that had less to do with McGill's involvement in the business of the paper and more to do with protecting him from the paper's mandatory retirement age so he could continue to write his daily columns. Over the next decade, the honors and official recognitions of his career poured in. Morehouse College, Harvard, Columbia, Notre Dame and 14 other colleges awarded McGill honorary degrees. In 1963 his "part autobiography, part history" book, The South and the Southerner, won both the Atlantic Monthly annual non-fiction prize and the Florina Lasker ACLU award. For having "courageously sounded the voice of reason, moderation, and progress during a period of contemporary revolution," President Lyndon Johnson honored McGill with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1964.
Ralph McGill died of heart failure in Atlanta on February 3, 1969.
The following titles may be found in the Hall of Fame Library:
A Church, a School. Columbia SC: University of South Carolina Press, 2012.
The South and the Southerner. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1992.
No Place to Hide : the South and Human Rights. Macon, Ga.: Mercer University Press, c1984.
Southern Encounters: Southerners of Note in Ralph McGill's South. Macon, Ga. : Mercer University Press, c1983.
The Best of Ralph McGill: Selected Columns. Atlanta: Cherokee Publishing Co., 1980.
Ralph Emerson McGill: February 5, 1898-February 3, 1969. (Selected quotations from McGill's daily column which appeared in The Atlanta Constitution.) Atlanta: [s.n.], 1970.
The Chicago Race Riots, July, 1919. (By Carl Sandburg. Preface by Ralph McGill.) New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1969.
The South Rejects a Prophet: the Life of Senator D.M. Key, 1824-1900. (By David M. Abshire. Foreword by Ralph McGill.) New York: F.A. Praeger, 1967.
The Children of the South. (By Margaret Anderson. Foreword by Ralph McGill.) New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1966.
God Wills Us Free: the Ordeal of a Southern Minister. (By Robert McNeill. Introd. by Ralph McGill.) New York: Hill and Wang, 1965.
The South and the Southerner. Boston: Little, Brown, 1963.
A Church, a School. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1959.
The Fleas Come With the Dog. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1954.]
Georgia, a Guide to Its Towns and Countryside. (American Guide series. Foreword by Ralph McGill.) Atlanta: Tupper & Love, 1954.
Report on India. (All the columns written by Ralph McGill during his stay in the interior of India and appearing in the Atlanta Constitution, Nov. 21, 1951-Jan. 8, 1952.) Atlanta: The Constitution, 1952.
Cook Book : a World of Good Eating. (YWCA Atlanta. International Club. Foreword by Ralph McGill.) Atlanta: YWCA, 195?.
Israel Revisited. Atlanta: Tupper and Love, 1950.
Full report [American Society of Newspaper Editors' Committee on World Freedom of Information]. New York: American Society of Newspaper Editors, 1945.
Rich's, Atlanta, Salutes the New South! (Includes The Story of the New South? by Ralph McGill.) [s.l. : s.n., 1943?]
Two Georgians Explore Scandinavia: a Comparison of Education for Democracy in Northern Europe and Georgia. Atlanta: State Dept. of Education, 1938.