Ralph McGill was born on February 3, 1898, on a farm in eastern Tennessee, United States. When he was six the family moved to Chattanooga and lived on a farm bequeathed by his grandfather. McGill's father, who influenced his son with a passion for learning and who had changed his own name from Benjamin Wallace to Benjamin Franklin McGill, took a job as a salesman for a small heating and roofing company. The son's middle name came in honor of a friend who was a devotee of Ralph Waldo Emerson. McGill always had happy memories of his childhood and of his family, including his mother, Mary Lou Skillern McGill. The region of his boyhood undoubtedly influenced McGill's later views. McGill recalled that "I lived in history, " surrounded by monuments and memorabilia of the Civil War and its nearby battlefields. But Chattanooga was never a die-hard Southern city, and eastern Tennessee, a non-slaveholding area, had dominant Republican Party and Union sympathies. McGill's grandfathers had taken opposite sides in the war, and his parents had opposing party loyalties.