John Malcolm Patterson

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John Malcolm Patterson
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 92)
Goldville, Alabama, U.S.
Political party Democratic Party
Spouse(s) Mary Jo McGowin
Alma mater University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa
Military service
Allegiance  United States
Service/branch United States Army seal United States Army
Years of service 1939–1945
Rank US-O4 insignia.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.

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

Early life and career[edit]

Patterson was born in Goldville in Tallapoosa County in east central Alabama. 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, Patterson joined the law practice of his father, Albert Patterson.

Attorney General of Alabama[edit]

In 1954, Patterson's father was nominated for state attorney general on a platform promising to eliminate crime but was shot to death in June of that year. John Patterson replaced his father on the Democratic ticket in a special election and was elected to the post of Attorney General.

As attorney general, Patterson worked against the civil rights movement; like nearly all Alabama politicians of the time, he was an open and unashamed segregationist. He banned the NAACP from operating in the state of Alabama and blocked boycotts by the African-American community in Tuskegee and the capital city of Montgomery. He also fought against organized crime.

With backing from the Ku Klux Klan, Patterson defeated a young George C. Wallace, who carried NAACP backing in the 1958 Democratic primaries—in those days, the real contest in Alabama. Patterson became the youngest governor in Alabama history and the first to move directly from the post of attorney general to governor. His defeat of Wallace is often credited with turning Wallace from a civil rights supporter to an ardent segregationist.

Governor of Alabama[edit]

Support for racial segregation[edit]

Patterson's clashes with the civil rights movement continued during his tenure as governor. He instigated the expulsion of black students for staging a sit-in at Alabama State University and defended Alabama's voter registration policies against federal criticism. He withheld police protection for interracial bus riders who were staging a "Freedom Ride" from Washington D.C., to New Orleans. Many of the riders were badly beaten by white mobs at the Birmingham bus station through Patterson's deliberate neglect. Subsequent freedom riders were guaranteed safe passage only with the intervention of then United States Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy's office through future Supreme Court Justice Byron White's initiative.[1]

Aside from his support of segregation, Patterson's tenure was considered progressive for the time. During his term, the Alabama legislature approved greatly increased funding for highway and school construction and provided additional monies for facilities for the mentally ill. Programs to improve Alabama's waterways and docks were expanded. Laws curtailing loan sharking were also passed. In addition, old age pensions were supplemented, including free hospitalization for elderly patients.[2] In 1960, NASA designated Huntsville as the site for the George C. Marshall Space Flight Center.

In 1960, Patterson, like Wallace, was an active supporter of U.S. Senator John F. Kennedy's presidential candidacy.

Role in the Bay of Pigs invasion[edit]

According to investigative reporter Seymour M. Hersh,[3] during the 1960 presidential campaign, Patterson played an important role in preparations for the Bay of Pigs Invasion carried out in April 1961 against Fidel Castro's new government in Cuba. U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower informed Patterson, whom he knew from military service in World War II, about the operation and asked for use of the Alabama Air National Guard aircraft. These planes transported Cuban emigres to training grounds in Nicaragua and then during the invasion itself. Patterson informed presidential candidate John F. Kennedy, thinking that the invasion if carried out before election day would have benefited Kennedy's Republican opponent, Vice President Richard M. Nixon.

Failed election bids[edit]

Patterson was forced to leave office in 1962; at the time Constitution of Alabama did not allow governors to run for immediate reelection. His Democratic opponent, from 1958, George Wallace, succeeded him, In 1966, when Wallace could not seek a second term either, Patterson made another bid for the Democratic nomination. He faced former U.S. Representative Carl Elliott of Jasper, former Governor Jim Folsom of Cullman, and sitting Attorney General Richmond Flowers, Sr. He lost to 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 by a wide margin by later U.S. Senator Howell Heflin of Tuscumbia.

his life

From the late 1970s through the late 1980s, Patterson taught American government at Troy University in Troy, Alabama. During part of this time, George Wallace, Jr., was an administrator at the school. And the 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.[4] 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.[5]

Having long since recanted his previous segregationist views, 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.[6]

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

Electoral history[edit]

Alabama gubernatorial election, 1958:

Democratic primary:[7]
Democratic primary runoff:[8]
  • John Malcolm Patterson – 315,353 (55.74%)
  • George Wallace – 250,451 (44.27%)
General election:[9]

Alabama gubernatorial election, 1966

Democratic primary:[10]

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

Democratic primary:[11]
  • Howell Heflin – 550,997 (65.71%)
  • John Malcolm Patterson – 287,594 (34.30%)


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
Preceded by
Mike Stepovich
Earliest Serving Governor Still Living
Succeeded by
Most recent