Former Alabama Gov. John Patterson, who entered politics as a reformer after his father’s assassination but was criticized for failing to protect the Freedom Riders from angry white mobs, has died. He was 99.
He died Friday, his daughter, Barbara Patterson Scholl, confirmed. “He died very peacefully at home. His family and friends were with him,” she said.
Patterson’s involvement with state government spanned a half century, beginning with his election as attorney general at 33 after violence in Phenix City, and later as a judge. In 1955, he appeared briefly as himself in “The Phenix City Story,” a Phil Karlson movie that told the story of his courageous battle against organized crime. The fictionalized account was advertised with a picture of actor Richard Kiley playing Patterson and saying, “I’ll get the gangs that killed my father!”
A segregationist as governor, he drew criticism when Freedom Riders were attacked while in Alabama and Patterson did nothing to protect them, despite direct pleas from Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy to attempt to prevent violence. “As several administration insiders later acknowledged,” Raymond Arsenault wrote in his book “Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice,” “the Kennedy brothers were furious at Patterson. Either out of incompetence or outright connivance — and the Kennedys suspected the latter — he had presided over a needless escalation of violence that included a shameless attack on federal authority.”
Patterson later voiced regret for what happened. He ended his political career more serenely on the Court of Criminal Appeals, where he continued to write opinions into his 80s.
Patterson also was involved in the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion, helping the CIA get Alabama Air National Guard members to train Cuban exiles. Some Alabama pilots died when the 1961 invasion of Cuba failed.
Patterson was born on his grandparents’ farm in the tiny Tallapoosa County community of Goldville, but finished high school in Phenix City, where his father, Albert Patterson, was a lawyer. After serving on Gen. Dwight Eisenhower’s staff during World War II, Patterson returned home, got his law degree from the University of Alabama and went into practice with his father, Albert Patterson.
Albert Patterson ran for attorney general in 1954 on a platform of cleaning up the vice and illegal gambling that had turned his town into “Sin City, U.S.A.” He won the Democratic nomination to be the state’s top prosecutor, but was gunned down in Phenix City on June 18.
Democratic Party officials pressured his son to run for attorney general in his place. He did and won.
In a 2003 interview, Patterson told The Associated Press he had no interest in politics until his father’s death. “If he hadn’t been killed, I never would have run for public office. Nobody would have ever heard of me outside legal circles,” Patterson said.
As attorney general, Patterson kept his father’s campaign promise to clean up Phenix City. He also fought civil rights groups in court. In one case, he got a restraining order to keep the NAACP from operating in Alabama. The restraining order remained until 1964, when it was lifted by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Patterson ran for governor in 1958, beating Wallace in a Democratic primary that focused largely on Patterson’s pro-segregation stand.
Patterson was the only person to beat Wallace in an Alabama election.
Four years later, Wallace successfully claimed the segregationist banner to begin his dynasty.
During Patterson’s term, Alabama launched a $100 million school building program, increased old age pensions, returned the State Docks to profitability, and enacted a small loan law to curb loan sharks.