John Patterson (1921- ) was thrust into the Alabama political arena in 1954 by the brutal murder of his father, Albert Patterson, who had gained the Democratic nomination for Alabama attorney general with promises to end the rampant organized crime in Phenix City. A self-professed populist, John Patterson attempted major reforms as governor in Alabama's property-tax assessment system and the funding of education. Most Alabamians recall his governorship, not for these largely failed reform efforts, but for his continued support of segregation. After his tenure as governor, John Patterson served on the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals, and he more recently presided over the special hearings called to hear Chief Justice Roy Moore's appeal after his ouster over the Ten Commandments monument controversy.
John Malcolm Patterson was born in Goldville, Tallapoosa County, on September 27, 1921, to Albert Love Patterson and Agnes Louise Benson Patterson, both of whom were school teachers. His father later became a school principal in Coosa and Clay counties before he became a lawyer and settled the family in Phenix City. In Alabama's system of "friends and neighbors" politics, in which political success depended on who the candidate knew, these multi-county connections would serve well both Pattersons in the electoral arena.
In 1940, John Patterson entered the U.S. Army as a private; five years later he left the Army as a major and had earned the Bronze Star. He served with an artillery battalion in both North Africa and Europe. In 1947, he married Mary Jo McGowin, with whom he had three children. He attended the University of Alabama, majoring in political science, and in 1949 he received his law degree and entered into practice with his father. Recalled to military service during the Korean War, he was stationed in Europe. He was transferred to the Judge Advocate's section shortly after his arrival and briefly considered a career in the Army. In December 1953, however, he returned to the family law practice in Phenix City.
Six months later, on June 18, 1954, Albert Patterson was assassinated as he left his law office. The crime propelled John Patterson into the state attorney general position in the following year. His tenure was marked by three major areas of activity: the successful cleanup of Phenix City; investigations of corruption in the second administration of Gov. James E. Folsom Sr.; and legal attempts to prevent desegregation following the U.S. Supreme Court's 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision. All three areas would affect his 1958 campaign for governor.
Patterson linked crime, corruption, and desegregation by arguing that "outside agitators"—gangsters and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP)—were pouring money into the state to stop him. The NAACP charges were based on the fact that in 1956 as attorney general Patterson sought and received a restraining order against the NAACP which barred it from operating in the state. In his suit, he argued that the NAACP had not registered as an out-of-state corporation. In response to another Patterson-initiated action, the organization refused to reveal its membership list, believing the list would be used to retaliate against supporters, and then ended up in a lawsuit about the matter that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. In his campaign, Patterson also stressed other anti-civil rights court cases he initiated, including a suit against the Tuskegee Civic Association for organizing an economic boycott to protest attempts to gerrymander the city limits to protect white control of local government.
Eleven candidates ran for governor in 1958, but only three dominated the field—Patterson, George C. Wallace, and Jimmy Faulkner. All of them focused on the issue of segregation. Patterson, however, was the only candidate with a proven track record of opposing integration, and he made the most of it. Wallace was then viewed by many white voters in the state as a racial moderate. On the economic front, Patterson stressed populist programs that appealed to working-class white voters, such as old-age pensions, unspecified support for better schools, and farm aid, and he declared himself as more pro-labor than the other candidates. Patterson entered the gubernatorial runoff as the frontrunner, having received 31.8 percent of the primary vote to Wallace's 26.3 percent. The runoff campaign mirrored the themes of the primary with added emphasis given to Patterson's opposition to integration, which earned him the support of the Ku Klux Klan. Patterson won with 55 percent of the vote. Much of Patterson's efforts as governor focused on blocking desegregation efforts. He continued to blame outsiders and what he termed "agitators" for many of the state's civil rights confrontations. For example, when the Freedom Rides made stops in Alabama to test recent rulings that desegregated public bus stations, Patterson blamed the beatings the riders received on the civil rights activists themselves, not on the failure of local and state law enforcement. By way of explaining his stance, Patterson argued that his oath of office required him to uphold the state constitution and state laws, all of which supported segregation, and that his actions represented delaying tactics and were a way to forestall federal action to afford the white public an unspecified amount of time to adjust to the concept of integration.
Given Patterson's campaign promise to improve Alabama's schools, education interests that included the Alabama Education Commission, an interim legislative committee, and various educational leaders approached him soon after his election victory. Schools were in physical disrepair and suffered from poor curricula and teaching qualifications throughout the state. Many school districts had lost or were about to lose their accreditation and important university programs faced loss of accreditation because of inadequate facilities and equipment. The "rescue" plan devised by Patterson was presented to a special session of the legislature. It called for a $75 million bond issue for construction with two-thirds of the money going to K-12 and one-third to higher education. Patterson also developed a review mechanism to ensure that construction projects receiving the monies reflected the priority needs of each school system. Another set of measures sought to raise revenues for general operations through $42 million in new taxes.
Even before the special session started Patterson began a well-planned lobbying campaign to push his proposals. He laid out allocations for each school district in the state and for the colleges and universities and publicized them prior to the legislative session. He also made personal phone calls to local civic, business, and educational leaders and urged them to lobby their legislators. Patterson and his Highway Department head, Sam Engelhardt, contacted legislators personally, offering highway construction in their districts in exchange for support for the educational package. Many legislators were leery of funding an education system that would soon be racially integrated, but Patterson argued that funding could serve as a way to improve both the white and black school systems and avoid integration. These efforts led to bond issue passage, but only one-half of the needed new tax revenues passed, and these came largely from regressive tax increases that the governor failed to prevent. Although the education budget increase was large for its time, Patterson expended many major political resources in the effort to gain it and thus greatly limited his options for other reforms later in his term.
Tax reform in the form of property tax equalization was another major Patterson reform effort. Designed by Revenue Commissioner Harry Haden, a former law school professor of Patterson's, this reform sought to bring equity to the tax system and raise collected revenue by changing the operations of the boards of equalization found in each of the state's 67 counties. Board members heard appeals from property owners who believed the county had assessed the value of their property incorrectly. The boards rarely raised an assessment and frequently lowered them, particularly if they knew the property owner or the owner had economic, political, or social clout. Haden calculated that if residential property alone was assessed in every county at 30 percent of fair market value the state could raise $30 million per year in new revenues that could be spent to improve the state's quality of life. Haden and Patterson actively recruited individuals willing to both serve on equalization boards and implement Haden's assessment plans. Although Patterson used a local lobbying effort similar to that employed for education reform, the tax increases reassessment would have triggered immediate and ferocious opposition from urban and rural business interests and individuals and forced him to end the equalization efforts.
Other Patterson successes included a $60 million bond issue for highway construction and maintenance; state sales-tax increases on liquor and cigarettes earmarked for use in education, pensions, and mental health; and the closing of some sales tax loopholes. A national recession made other reforms impossible to achieve, and Patterson left office with a more than $2 million deficit. Various attempts to bring about state legislative reapportionment also failed.
Upon leaving the governorship, Patterson remained in Montgomery, where he practiced law and prepared for a reelection bid at the end of George Wallace's term. In 1965 Patterson joined Ryan de Graffenried and other political hopefuls and their legislative supporters in fighting the Alabama Senate's passage of the so-called succession amendment, which would have allowed a governor (including the outgoing Wallace) to serve two consecutive terms. The legislation had passed the Alabama House by a 74 to 23 vote, and if passed in the Senate, would go to the public as a referendum. Supporters of U.S. Senator John Sparkman had joined the succession amendment fight because an additional amendment being pushed with it would have lifted a constitutional provision that prohibited governors from running for the U.S. Senate within one year of the end of term for which they were elected. This second amendment died, however, in part because Wallace decided to concentrate on gaining a second gubernatorial term. Others joined the anti-succession amendment fight because they feared Wallace's growing national political clout. A filibuster mounted by Patterson, de Graffenried, and Sparkman supporters was a long, bitter, and intense fight, but when the vote came, the amendment received too few votes for passage. The succession amendment fight had a major impact on state politics for years to come. Many of the Patterson supporters who waged the anti-succession fight in the Senate lost their legislative races. Patterson ran for election once more (for chief justice of the Supreme Court in 1970) and lost to future U.S. senator Howell Heflin. Divorced from his first wife, he married Florentine "Tina" Brachert Sawyer in 1975.
Wallace appointed Patterson to the Court of Criminal Appeals in 1984, and he won election twice and retired in 1997, serving on a part-time basis as needed. In January 2004, Patterson was sworn in as the Special Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court. The temporary court was created through a random drawing of names from a pool of retired judges to hear Chief Justice Roy Moore's appeal of his ouster by the Alabama Court of the Judiciary on the grounds that he had violated the Canons of Judicial Ethics. The court's creation became necessary when the eight members of the Alabama Supreme Court recused themselves. The Special Supreme Court unanimously upheld the Court of the Judiciary's decision to eject Moore. This was Patterson's last public service. He now spends much of his time on his farm in Goldville.
As governor, John Patterson attempted major reforms in the state's property tax system and educational funding. Educational budgets increased during his administration, but economic conditions and efforts to forestall desegregation limited the impact of this increase. Property tax reform failed. Civil rights activity and anti-integration efforts took much of the governor's time and efforts. After the governorship John Patterson's judicial career has been judged positively and his personal integrity and judicial manner well respected.
Note: This entry was adapted with permission from Alabama Governors: A Political History of the State, edited by Samuel L. Webb and Margaret Armbrester (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2001).
Clem, Robert. John Patterson: In the Wake of Assassins. Motion picture. New Paltz, N.Y.: Waterfront Pictures, 2007.
Engelhardt, Sam. Personal Files. Alabama Department of Archives and History, Montgomery, Alabama.
Grady, Alan. When Good Men Do Nothing: The Assassination of Albert Patterson. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2003.
Grafton, Carl and Anne Permaloff. "The Big Mule Alliance's Last Good Year: Thwarting the Patterson Reforms." Alabama Review 47 (October 1994): 243-66.
Howard, Gene. Patterson for Alabama: The Life and Career of John Patterson. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2008.
Patterson, John M. Office Files. Alabama Department of Archives and History, Montgomery.
Permaloff, Anne, and Carl Grafton. Political Power in Alabama: The More Things Change . . . Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1996.
Trest, Warren A. Nobody But The People. Montgomery, Ala.: NewSouth Books, 2008.
Auburn University Montgomery
Auburn University Montgomery
Published January 15, 2008
Last updated March 18, 2014