John Malcolm Patterson

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John Malcolm Patterson
John Malcolm Patterson.jpg
44th Governor of Alabama
In office
January 19, 1959 – January 14, 1963
Lieutenant Albert Boutwell
Preceded by Jim Folsom
Succeeded by George Wallace
Attorney General of Alabama
In office
January 17, 1955 – January 19, 1959
Governor Jim Folsom
Preceded by Bernard Sykes
Succeeded by MacDonald Gallion
Personal details
Born (1921-09-27) September 27, 1921 (age 96)
Goldville, Alabama, U.S.
Political party Democratic
Spouse(s) Tina Sawyer
Alma mater University of Alabama
Military service
Allegiance  United States
Service/branch Seal of the United States Department of War.png United States Army
Years of service 1939–1945
Rank US Army O4 shoulderboard rotated.svg Major
Battles/wars World War II
Korean War

John Malcolm Patterson (born September 27, 1921) is a retired American politician who was the 44th Governor of the U.S. state of Alabama, having served a single term from 1959 to 1963. Previously, from 1955 to 1959, he was his state's attorney general.

In 2003, Patterson was the presiding judge over former Chief Justice Roy Moore's appeal against his removal from the Alabama Supreme Court.

Patterson ran with the support of the Ku Klux Klan when he won the Governorship of Alabama in 1958.[1]

Early life and career[edit]

Patterson was born in Goldville in Tallapoosa County in east central Alabama. His father was attorney Albert Patterson. He joined the United States Army in 1939 and served in the North African, Sicilian, Italian, Southern France, and German campaigns of World War II. In 1945, he left the Army as a major, and obtained an LL.B. degree from the University of Alabama School of Law at Tuscaloosa. He was recalled to active duty in the Army from 1951 to 1953 in the Korean War. After his military service, he joined his father's law practice.

Attorney General of Alabama[edit]

In 1954, Patterson's father ran for state attorney general in the state's Democratic primary on a platform promising to eliminate crime in the mob-controlled town of Phenix City, where he lived, and also across the state. In those days, Alabama was a de facto one-party state dominated by the Democrats, and the Democratic nominee was all but assured of election. Albert Patterson was shot to death in Phenix City less than two weeks after winning the Democratic nomination on June 18, 1954. John Patterson replaced his father on the ballot, and as expected won the general election handily. The 1955 film The Phenix City Story was based on these events, and actor Richard Kiley portrayed Patterson in that film.[2]

Patterson continued to fight organized crime, but became better known for his actions in opposition to civil rights. Following the 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education, which ordered an end to racial segregation in public schools, Patterson used existing state law to frustrate and oppose attempts by African Americans to enforce court decisions against segregation. When the NAACP failed to register as an out-of-state organization, he used this technicality to ban it from operating in the state.[3] Patterson instituted legal action to defeat boycotts by Tuskegee blacks against white businesses.[3]

Governor of Alabama[edit]

In 1958 Patterson ran for governor of Alabama on a strong law enforcement platform, citing his background in Phenix City and his crime-fighting efforts as attorney general. His strong stand in favor of segregation earned him the endorsement of the Ku Klux Klan.[3] He promised "if a school is ordered to be integrated, it will be closed down."[4] Patterson won the Democratic primary against a field of candidates that included future governor George Wallace.[3] Patterson became the second-youngest governor in Alabama history and the first to move directly from the post of attorney general to governor.

As governor, Patterson had black students who staged a sit-in at Alabama State University expelled, and defended Alabama's voter registration policies against federal criticism.[3]

Aside from his support of segregation, Patterson's tenure was considered progressive for the time. During his term, the Alabama legislature increased funding for highways, inland waterways, schools, and mental health facilities. Laws curtailing loan sharking were also passed.

Role in the Bay of Pigs invasion[edit]

In 1959, Patterson was approached by the CIA to allow Alabama air national guardsmen to help train pilots preparing for an invasion of Fidel Castro's Cuba. Assured that the project had the backing of President Eisenhower (Patterson had served on Eisenhower's staff during the war), Patterson gave his assent.

During the 1960 presidential campaign Patterson was among a handful of Southern governors who backed John F. Kennedy for president. He raised money, collected delegates loyal to Kennedy within the state of Alabama and led the state's delegation to the 1960 Democratic convention in Los Angeles. Patterson informed Kennedy of the Cuban invasion plan, thinking that carrying out the invasion before election day would have benefited Kennedy's Republican opponent, Vice President Richard M. Nixon.[5] Only a few months into his presidency, Kennedy approved a modified version of the invasion plan.

Failed election bids[edit]

Patterson left office in 1963; at the time the Constitution of Alabama did not allow governors to run for immediate reelection. His Democratic opponent, from 1958, George Wallace, succeeded him. In 1966 Patterson ran a second time for governor but was defeated by Wallace's wife, Lurleen, who was widely understood to be a surrogate candidate for her husband.

In 1972, Patterson unsuccessfully contested the Democratic nomination for the post of Alabama Chief Justice, losing to later U.S. Senator Howell Heflin.

Continued public service[edit]

From the late 1970s through the late 1980s, Patterson taught American government at Troy State University, now Troy University. During part of this time, George Wallace, Jr., was an administrator at the school. During the same time, former California Superintendent of Public Instruction, Max Rafferty, headed the education department.

In 1984, Patterson was appointed to the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals, at which he remained until his retirement in 1997.

In 2003, Patterson was appointed chief justice of a "Special Supreme Court" that tried the case of Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore, who appealed his removal from office after he had refused to remove a monument of the Ten Commandments from the courthouse despite orders from a federal court judge to do so. The special court ruled that Moore's removal was legal.[6] In 2012, Moore was again elected as the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Alabama.

A 90-minute documentary film on Patterson was completed in 2007 by Alabama filmmaker Robert Clem. Entitled John Patterson: In the Wake of the Assassins, the film features an extended interview with Patterson himself as well as with journalists, historians. and such key figures as John Seigenthaler of Tennessee, aide to Robert Kennedy at the time of the Freedom Rides.[7]

Patterson endorsed Barack Obama in the 2008 presidential election. On the day before Obama was sworn in, Patterson said that during his era, support for integrating the public schools was a political non-starter in Alabama.[8]

An authorized biography of Patterson entitled Nobody but the People, written by historian Warren Trest, was published in 2008 by New South Books.[9][10][11]

Electoral history[edit]

Alabama gubernatorial election, 1958:

Democratic primary:[12]
Democratic primary runoff:[13]
  • John Malcolm Patterson – 315,353 (55.74%)
  • George Wallace – 250,451 (44.27%)
General election:[14]

Alabama gubernatorial election, 1966

Democratic primary:[15]

Election of Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, 1970:

Democratic primary:[16]
  • Howell Heflin – 550,997 (65.71%)
  • John Malcolm Patterson – 287,594 (34.30%)



  1. ^ Mccabe, Daniel (writer, director, producer), Paul Stekler (writer, director, producer), Steve Fayer (writer) (2000). George Wallace: Settin' the Woods on Fire (Documentary). Boston, USA: American Experience. 
  2. ^ Eder, Bruce. "The Phenix City Story". AllMovie. Retrieved 28 August 2016. 
  3. ^ a b c d e "Alabama Governors: John Malcolm Patterson". Alabama Department of Archives and History. 2014-02-07. Retrieved 2014-06-10. 
  4. ^ Hanna-Jones, Nikole (6 September 2017). "The Resegrgation of Jefferson County". New York Times. Retrieved 11 September 2017. 
  5. ^ Seymour M. Hersh, The Dark Side of Camelot (1997), Chapter 12.
  6. ^ WSFA TV Montgomery, AL – Moore Appeal Denied
  7. ^ John Patterson: In the Wake of the Assassins
  8. ^ [1] Archived July 19, 2012, at
  9. ^ Howard, Gene (2008). Patterson for Alabama: The Life and Career of John Patterson. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press. p. 272. ISBN 978-0-8173-1605-1. 
  10. ^ Clem, Robert. "In the Wake of the Assassins". One State Films. 
  11. ^ Trest, Warren (2008). Nobody but the People: The life and times of Alabama's Youngest Governor. Montgomery, Alabama: New South Books. p. 496. ISBN 1-58838-221-4. 
  12. ^ Our Campaigns – AL Governor D Primary Race – Jun 3, 1958
  13. ^ Our Campaigns – AL Governor D Runoff Race – Jun 24, 1958
  14. ^ Our Campaigns – AL Governor Race – Nov 3, 1958
  15. ^ Our Campaigns – AL Governor – D Primary Race – Jun 3, 1966
  16. ^ Our Campaigns – AL State Supreme Court Chief Justice – D Primary Race – May 5, 1970
  17. ^ Barnes, Margaret Anne (2002). The Tragedy and the Triumph of Phenix City Alabama (Revised ed.). Georgia: Mercer University Press. p. 350. ISBN 0-86554-613-4. 

External links[edit]

Legal offices
Preceded by
Bernard Sykes
Attorney General of Alabama
January 17, 1955 – January 19, 1959
Succeeded by
MacDonald Gallion
Party political offices
Preceded by
Jim Folsom
Democratic nominee for Governor of Alabama
Succeeded by
George Wallace
Political offices
Preceded by
Jim Folsom
Governor of Alabama
January 19, 1959 – January 14, 1963
Succeeded by
George Wallace
Honorary titles
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Mike Stepovich
Earliest Serving Governor Still Living
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Oldest living American governor
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