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UGA Events Honor Legendary Editor Ralph McGill and Other Georgia Writers

Athens is mostly known as a music mecca, but this month, practitioners of prose and poetry will be honored at the University of Georgia during two events that celebrate writers in this state and nation. Two university organizations, the Ralph McGill Lecture and Symposium and the Georgia Writers Hall of Fame, have public events coming up during November that showcase wordsmiths both past and present. 

The 41st annual McGill Lecture takes place Nov. 13 at 4 p.m. in Room 150 of the Miller Learning Center. The Georgia Writers Hall of Fame Reception and Induction Ceremony will begin at 6 p.m. on Nov. 17 in Room 285 at the Special Collections Library.

The McGill events commemorate the courage of Georgia newspaperman Ralph McGill, whose civil rights-era columns in The Atlanta Constitution earned him accolades as “the conscience of the South.” McGill had a long career as a journalist, beginning as a sports scribe for The Nashville Banner in the 1920s and continuing for nearly 50 years until his death in 1969. In 1953, his columns moved to the front page of the Atlanta newspaper, and in 1959, McGill was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for his column titled “A Church, A School,” in which he decried white supremacist violence and called on “all Americans to stand up and be counted on the side of law and the due process of law.”  

In his decades as a newspaper writer, McGill ground out more than 10,000 columns about a wide variety of subjects, from the joys of down-home barbecue to the majesty of a space launch to eyewitness coverage of the trial of Nazi war criminals after World War II. His columns were a page one institution for a generation of readers like me in the South of the 1950s and ’60s, and also for those outside the region who read them syndicated in newspapers across America. 

In 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. mentioned McGill in his “Letter From Birmingham Jail,” saying that McGill wrote about the burgeoning civil rights movement “in eloquent and prophetic terms.”  In 1964, McGill was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. 

I’ll always remember meeting McGill when I was a young man attending one of his lectures. McGill was a sturdy fireplug of a man with piercing blue eyes and a quiet charisma befitting a big-city editor. I was honored to shake his hand and thank him for his work.

This year’s McGill Lecturer is David McCraw, deputy general counsel for The New York Times, whose timely topic is “Fake News: The Press, The President, and the Future of the First Amendment.” McCraw’s new book is called Truth in Our Times: Inside the Fight for Press Freedom in the Age of Alternative Facts. In a Mar. 19 interview with the Times, McCraw said that in today’s America, “What we’ve seen is that the president of the United States calling the press the enemy of the people, a stain on society, purveyors of fake news, has created an epidemic. The worst governments in the worst places have now adopted that language, and they’re using it to oppress their own press.” McCraw’s lecture comes at a precarious and perilous time for American journalism in which the courage and commitment of McGill are still needed and relevant.

Past McGill lecturers have included Eugene Patterson, Tom Wicker, Celestine Sibley, Katharine Graham and Leonard Pitts. 

The Georgia Writers Hall of Fame says its purpose is “to recognize Georgia writers, past and present, whose body of work reflects Georgia’s rich literary heritage.” Appropriately, McGill is one of the Georgia scribes inducted into the Hall of Fame. Other Peach State poets and prose writers honored there include Erskine Caldwell, W.E.B. Du Bois, Carson McCullers, Margaret Mitchell, Joel Chandler Harris, Pat Conroy, Ferrol Sams, Jimmy Carter, Terry Kay, Philip Lee Williams, James Dickey and many more. This year’s inductees are food writer John T. Edge and poet A. E. Stallings. Pulitzer Prize-winning Georgia journalist and activist Julia Collier Harris will be inducted posthumously. 

McGill’s voice and spirit will be remembered during the upcoming events on the University of Georgia campus this month. His words of warning from 60 years ago need to be remembered across this nation and around the world today: “When the wolves of hate are loosed on one people, then no one is safe.”