John Malcolm Patterson was the son of educators Albert Love Patterson and the former Agnes Louise Benson. Albert Patterson became a principal at schools in Coosa and Clay Counties before changing careers and opening a law practice in Phenix City. John Patterson enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1940 and served for five years through World War II, earning a Bronze Star during his service with an artillery battalion in North Africa and Europe. He was discharged with the rank of Major.
In 1947 Patterson married Mary Jo McGowin and enrolled in the University of Alabama to study political science and law. He completed his law degree in 1949 and joined his father's practice. He went back on active duty during the Korean War and, due to his training, was transferred to the Judge Advocate's section in Europe. He returned to Phenix City in 1953.
Patterson's father campaigned for Attorney General with a promise to clean up the state, starting with prosecuting organized crime rings active in Phenix City. He was murdered outside his office on June 18, 1954. John Patterson succeeded his father on the ballot and easily won the nomination in 1955. In addition to successful efforts to combat organized crime in the state, Patterson investigated corruption in Governor Jim Folsom Sr's administration and actively fought against efforts to desegregate Alabama schools and public facilities in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas. He attacked the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People by winning an injunction against their organizing activities in the state.
In the 1958 gubernatorial election, Patterson was one of fourteen candidates in the open contest to succeed Folsom as Governor. He pledged to create an Alabama Industrial Development Board to stimulate economic activity and to pursue efficiency in government to protect funds for teacher pay raises and welfare programs for the "the aged, widows, orphans and the handicapped". In his campaign materials he blamed "outside agitators", including organized crime rings and the NAACP, for stirring up violence and unrest in the state. He was quoted in a comic book published by his campaign as saying "Any time there's a segregation problem in Alabama, it's caused by northern henchmen of the NAACP imported here to stir up trouble. This group of organized race baiters must never be given another foothold in our state."
Patterson won 32% of the vote in the Democratic primary and defeated Circuit Judge George Wallace 55% to 45% in the runoff, effectively winning the office with meager opposition from the Republican and Independent candidates in the general election. At the time, Wallace was viewed as a racial moderate and in the runoff Patterson benefited from support from White Citizens Councils and the Ku Klux Klan. When he was inaugurated at age 37 he was the youngest man to have held the office.
With assistance from Lieutenant Governor Albert Boutwell, Patterson continued to block efforts to force desegregation, notably by taking no steps to prevent mobs from attacking Freedom Riders in 1960 and by directing officials to oppose all concessions to integrationist demands. To fulfill his pledge to improve schools, he called a special session to consider a $75 million bond issue for construction and renovation of school buildings and a slate of new taxes to raise $42 million more for operating budgets. In lobbying the legislature, he offered the promise of new highway projects in their districts and tried to convince the public that improving all schools would help make the case against forced integration. The bond issue passed, but only part of the revenue package was approved, mainly comprised of sales tax increases on liquor and cigarettes. Another $60 million bond issue, for highway construction, passed easily.
Patterson also sought to bolster state revenues by reforming the property tax assessment system, which was fraught with favoritism. He and Revenue Commissioner Harry Haden estimated that $30 million in taxes was "lost" each year due to improperly lowered assessments. This initiative was pursued by recruiting reformers to be appointed to boards of equalization,. It was opposed by powerful special interests and achieved only minimal results. He did have success with new laws aimed at reigning in "loan sharks."
In 1959 Patterson assented to secret CIA plans to use Alabama Air National Guard pilots to train Cuban civilian pilots for an assault against Fidel Castro's government. In the 1960 election Patterson supported John F. Kennedy for president and led the state's delegation at the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles, California. It was he that first informed Kennedy of the Bay of Pigs plan, a version of which Kennedy later approved as President, to disastrous results.
With only limited success on raising revenues and facing a national recession, Patterson's term ended with the state facing a $2 million deficit. Under the state law at the time, he could not succeed himself as Governor, so after leaving office, Patterson opened a law practice in Montgomery and laid the groundwork for another campaign in 1967.
In 1965 he joined with Ryan de Graffenried and others to fight a proposed change to the law which would have allowed Wallace to run for re-election. The proposal passed easily in the House of Representatives but was filibustered by De Graffenried and others in the Senate. Wallace, however, had become overwhelmingly popular with voters and the opponents of the proposal to allow him to run for a second term punished the other hopefuls by electing Wallace's wife, Lurleen as a puppet Governor. De Graffenried had been considered a leading candidate, but died before the election. Patterson finished sixth of ten candidates on the ballot.
Patterson also lost his 1970 bid for Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, which was won by Howell Heflin. He began teaching government classes at Troy State University. In 1984 Wallace appointed Patterson to a vacancy in the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals. He was re-elected twice to that seat and served until his retirement in 1997. When Roy Moore was removed from the State Supreme Court by the Alabama Court of the Judiciary in 2004, Patterson was tapped to head a special court created to hear his appeal.
Afterward he returned to retirement on his farm in Goldville with his second wife, the former Tina Brachert Sawyer. He was the subject of, and appeared in, a 2007 documentary film John Patterson: In the Wake of the Assassins, produced and directed by Robert Clem. Patterson died at his ranch in 2021.
|Attorney General of Alabama
Jim Folsom Sr
|Governor of Alabama
- Grafton, Carl & Anne Permaloff (October 1994) "The Big Mule Alliance's Last Good Year: Thwarting the Patterson Reforms." Alabama Review, No. 47, pp. 243-66
- Webb, Samuel L. & Margaret Armbrester, eds. (2001) Alabama Governors: A Political History of the State. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press ISBN 9780817310820
- Howard, Gene (2008) Patterson for Alabama: The Life and Career of John Patterson. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press
- Trest, Warren (2008) Nobody but the People: The life and times of Alabama's Youngest Governor. Louisville, Kentucky: New South Books. p. 496. ISBN 1-58838-221-4.
- Grafton, Carl & Anne Permaloff (September 30, 2014) "John M. Patterson (1959-63)" Encyclopedia of Alabama online - accessed May 11, 2016
- Lyman, Brian (June 5, 2021) "John Patterson, Alabama governor during Freedom Rides, dies at 99." Montgomery Advertiser
- American Experience: Freedom Riders: The Governor (PBS) on YouTube.com