William L. Patterson

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William L. 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.

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.[1]

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.


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]

Patterson became involved in leftist politics after earning his law degree. He joined protests in Boston against the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti, immigrant anarchists convicted of subversion. He joined the Communist Party USA for a period. Through that, he became head of the International Labor Defense, an organization to represent leftists and African Americans seeking justice in the United States.

Marriage and family[edit]

He married Louise Thompson in the 1930s. A writer, she had a long association with the poet Langston Hughes, and they collaborated on a proposal for a documentary about Harlem culture.

Patterson died in 1980.[3]



  1. ^ "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. 
  2. ^ Tamalpais Graduate, 1911, Tamalpais Union High School, Mill Valley, California
  3. ^ Ledbetter, Les (March 7, 1980). "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. Retrieved May 31, 2008. William Patterson, a lawyer and writer active in the American Communist Party for half a century, died Wednesday night at Union Hospital in the Bronx after a prolonged illness. He was 89 years old. He is buried close to the Haymarket Martyrs' Monument in Forest Homes cemetery. 
  4. ^ Sheila Tully Boyle, Andrew Bunie, Paul Robeson: The Years of Promise and Achievement Sheridan Books (2001), p. 485, see footnote 23. Retrieved December 6, 2011

Further reading[edit]

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