William L. Patterson

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William Lorenzo Patterson (August 27, 1891 – March 5, 1980) was an African-American leader in the Communist Party USA and head of the International Labor Defense, a group that offered legal representation to communists, trade unionists, and African Americans in cases involving issues of political or racial persecution.


Early years[edit]

William Lorenzo Patterson was born August 27, 1891 in San Francisco, California.[1] His father, James Edward Patterson, originally hailed from the island of St. Vincent in the British Virgin Islands.[1] His mother, Mary Galt Patterson, had been born a slave in the state of Virginia and was the daughter of the organizer of a volunteer regiment of black soldiers who fought with the Union army during the American Civil War.[1]

Patterson's father was a Seventh-day Adventist missionary to Tahiti and he spent extensive time there, with the rest of the family moving between the California cities of Oakland and Mill Valley, where William attended public schools.[1]

In 1911 Patterson was the first African-American graduate of Tamalpais High School, in Mill Valley, California. In the yearbook, his stated ambition was "to be a second Booker T. Washington."[2] After graduation Patterson supported himself working as a laborer in railroad dining cars and on boats which worked the Pacific coast.[1] He saved up enough money to enter the University of California, Berkeley but was expelled during the years of World War I due to his refusal to participate in compulsory military training.[1]

Deciding to set his sights on becoming a lawyer, Patterson entered the Hastings College of Law, from which he graduated in 1919.[3] He failed the California State Bar Examination, however, and decided to pursue emigration to Liberia, taking a job as a cook on a mail ship to England as a means to this end.[3] Patterson found his inquiries about Liberian emigration put off in England due to his lack of construction or practical craft skills, and he determined to return to the United States, landing in New York and gaining employment as a longshoreman.[3]

Patterson was able to put his college degree to use, finding employment as a clerk in a law office, helping to write briefs and studying to take the New York State Bar Examination, which he passed in 1924.[3] During this time he married his first wife, the former Minnie Summer, and made numerous personal acquaintances associated with the booming Harlem Renaissance.[3]

Political activism[edit]

Among Patterson's New York friends was radical political activist Richard B. Moore, who persuaded Patterson to put his legal skills to work in the effort to prevent the execution of the Italian immigrant anarchist Sacco and Vanzetti, convicted of murder in a controversial and highly politicized Massachusetts trial.[3]

Patterson joined the Workers (Communist) Party and became head of the International Labor Defense, a communist legal advocacy organization.

On August 22, 1927, he was among the 156 persons arrested for protesting the execution of immigrants Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, who were anarchists.[4]

Patterson was active in the Civil Rights Congress, which succeeded the ILD. In 1951 he presented the document, We Charge Genocide, to the United Nations, charging the U.S. federal government with complicity in genocide for failing to pass legislation or prosecute persons responsible for lynching in the United States, of which most of the victims were black men.

He married Louise Thompson on September 3, 1940.[5] A writer, she had a long association with the poet Langston Hughes, and they collaborated on a proposal for a documentary about Harlem culture.

Death and legacy[edit]

Patterson died in 1980 at Union Hospital in the Bronx following a prolonged illness.[6] He was 88 years old at the time of his death.

Patterson's papers are housed at Howard University.[7]


  1. ^ a b c d e f Staff, "Biography," Finding Aid to the William Patterson Papers, Manuscript Division, Howard University, 2015; pg. 2.
  2. ^ Tamalpais Graduate, 1911, Tamalpais Union High School, Mill Valley, California
  3. ^ a b c d e f "Biography," Finding Aid to the William Patterson Papers, pg. 3.
  4. ^ "Sacco Aftermath". Time Magazine. September 5, 1927. Retrieved October 12, 2008. For "sauntering and loitering" in front of the State House in Boston, 156 men and women were arraigned, found guilty. All but six were fined $5 and paid the fine. The others— Edna St. Vincent Millay, poet; Ellen Hayes, retired Wellesley College professor; John Howard Lawson, playwright; William Patterson, Negro lawyer; Ela Reeve Bloor and Catherine Huntington, liberal gentlewomen—were fined $10.
  5. ^ Gilyard _Louise Thompson Patterson_, 143
  6. ^ Les Ledbetter, "William Patterson, Lawyer, Dead at 89. Activist Fought for Black Causes. Joined With Paul Robeson in Accusing U.S. at U.N. Opened Harlem Law Office," New York Times, March 7, 1980.
  7. ^ Finding Aid to the William Patterson Papers, Manuscript Division, Howard University, Oct. 1, 2015.


  • The Communist Position on the Negro Question. Contributor. New York: New Century Publishers, 1947.
  • We Demand Freedom. New York: Civil Rights Congress, 1951.
  • A People's Alternative to Mayor Wagner's Tax Program. New York: 1963.
  • Negro Liberation: A Goal for All Americans. New York: New Currents Publishers, 1964.
  • Ben Davis: Crusader for Negro Freedom and Socialism. New York: New Outlook Publishers, 1967.
  • In Honor of Paul Robeson: Excerpts of a Speech by William L. Patterson. New York: Communist Party USA, n.d. [1969].
  • Some Aspects of the Black Liberation Struggle: Two Lectures. With Claude Lightfoot. New York: Black Liberation Commission, CPUSA, n.d. [1969].
  • We Charge Genocide: The Historic Petition to the United Nations for Relief from a Crime of the United States Government against the Negro People. Editor. New York: International Publishers, 1970.
  • Four Score Years in Freedom's Fight: A Tribute to William L. Patterson on the Occasion of his 80th Birthday, Chicago, Illinois, October 22, 1971. Contributor, with Claude Lightfoot. New York: New Outlook Publishers, 1972.
  • The Man Who Cried Genocide: An Autobiography. New York: International Publishers, 1971.

Further reading[edit]

  • Walter T. Howard, We Shall Be Free!: Black Communist Protests in Seven Voices. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 2013.

External links[edit]