Governor John Patterson: A Man of the Times

By Jesse Chambers

If you think of former Alabama governor John Patterson merely as a staunch defender of segregation in the state’s public schools during the tumultuous days of the Civil Rights movement, you may be surprised to learn that he was an enthusiastic supporter of Democratic nominee, and now President-Elect, Barack Obama in the recent presidential campaign. “I think the White House and the Republican leadership needs to be cleaned out, the quicker the better, and I think Obama is the guy to clean it out,” Patterson says.

However, his support for Obama, the first African American elected to the nation’s highest office, should come as no surprise, according to Patterson. “A lot of people have me tagged as an arch-racist,” he says. “They’ve got it wrong. I have no problem supporting Barack Obama. I never grew up in a home with racist feelings.” Patterson also strongly defends the basic good nature of the inhabitants of the part of Alabama where he grew up in the 1920s and 1930s. “The country I come out of is Tallapoosa and Clay counties, and they produce very liberal people,” he says. “There was no anti-racial feeling in the people in that hill country and there never was.”

Patterson, who served a single term as governor from 1959 to 1963, argues that his stance regarding segregation was a political necessity. “I used the race issue to get elected, like George Wallace and a lot of others, and if that’s wrong, that’s wrong,” he says. “If you didn’t do that you wouldn’t get elected. You might as well go home and forget it.” Even after his election, the issue constrained him. “The law required that the schools be segregated,” Patterson says. “And the legislature was not about to change the law. If I had attempted to force some issue myself, the legislature might well have impeached me. Timing is everything. And the timing was not right to do anything about segregation.”

This is not to say that Patterson doesn’t regret the way he handled segregation, particularly the issue of voting rights. “We were denying black people all over the state, highly qualified folk, the right to vote,” Patterson says. “You’d see these country guys on these voting registration boards. They’d call in some guy with a doctorate from Columbia University teaching at Tuskegee and ask him questions about the constitution and turn him down because they weren’t satisfactory. This was ridiculous. It was outrageous.”

Patterson wishes now that he had tried to change this, whatever the political price. “I could have worked on those boards, possibly appointed different members, and loosened up this voter registration thing for black citizens, which would have hastened their participation in the political process, and I just didn’t do it, and I possibly could have,” he says. “I would have been unpopular and I would have probably got beat when I ran for reelection, but I got beat anyway,” he says, laughing, referring to his defeat in the 1966 Democratic gubernatorial primary. “Hell, I wouldn’t have risked anything, would I?”

Now 87 and living on the family farm in Goldville in Tallapoosa County, Patterson has seen his complex legacy get a fresh look recently, half a century after his inauguration. He is the subject of a documentary film by Robert Clem, John Patterson: In the Wake of the Assassins, which premiered in 2007 on Alabama Public Television (watch the trailer at He is also the subject of two recent biographies, Nobody But the People: The Life and Times of Alabama’s Youngest Governor, by Warren Trest, from NewSouth Books, and Patterson for Alabama: The Life and Career of John Patterson, by Gene Howard, from the University of Alabama Press.

Both Trest and Howard argue that Patterson was an effective governor overall. He brought sound management to the state after the graft and corruption of the Folsom years. He increased old-age pensions and mental health funding. He increased funding for schools, both white and black. He took on powerful lobbies to close down the loan sharks who preyed upon the poor. Howard states that Patterson, as both attorney general and governor, “provided critical leadership and tried to instill in the people and their elected officials an awareness of the benefits that can accrue from growth and change. While Alabama clung to its affection for Dixiecrat politics and its agrarian past, John Patterson preached the gospel of progressiveness.”

Some say that Patterson’s segregationist background and “that’s just the way it was” defense overshadows any accomplishments he may have achieved in office. Howard, who is critical of Patterson’s handling of the civil rights issue, suggests that “assessing Patterson’s place in Alabama politics is not a simple matter.” I asked Patterson if he has changed or matured since his time as governor. “I think I’m still the same fellow,” he says. “I was a populist. I believe in using tax money to help people have a better life by spending it for education and health care and other things. I felt that way before I got to be governor, and I still feel the same way. This is why I was attracted to the Obama campaign.”

In addition to seeing a fellow populist in the young Illinois senator, Patterson was attracted to Obama because he desperately wishes to see a new approach to U.S. foreign policy. He cites, for example, his opposition to the Iraq War and the Bush administration’s use of torture. “It’s going to take us a long time to live all this down, if ever,” he says. “We need a change, bad. And Obama represents the best change we have.”

Patterson hopes that Obama, in his dealings with other nations, will be less confrontational than Bush and his adminstration. “When I see Bush talk to Putin, it makes my blood boil to see him be so insulting to the leader of Russia,” Patterson says. “I think Obama has the qualifications to be a leader, and not just a leader here, but in the world. I think he can talk to our adversaries. This is what I would like to see. I don’t see why we can’t talk to anyone in the world, and do business with them if we can. We have to get this foolish idea out of our heads that we are going to export our form of government, whatever it is, with a gun if necessary.”

Obama’s personal style and the way he carried himself during the presidential campaign also receive high grades from Patterson. “He maintains his composure at all times,” Patterson says. “You’ll never see him get mad and start spouting off about things he ought not to say. He’s got full control of himself. He always stays on the course. And he had a terrific plan on how to run his campaign. And he never took the bait when they attacked him. He never responded against anybody in kind. Several times, they baited him and tried to get him to criticize some particular person. He wouldn’t do it. Even his own preacher, who was such a controversial character. And he had the charisma and the style. He has the appearance of a cultured gentleman, and he makes a tremendous speech.”

Patterson has strong feelings about what he saw as some of the McCain campaign’s strategies. “His opposition has attempted every way they can, short of blatantly being racist, to play that card,” he says. “It’s very subtle. It’s really a damn shame.” This is not the first time that Patterson has witnessed a Democratic presidential candidate battle prejudice. He was a strong supporter of John F. Kennedy’s presidential bid in 1960, despite the fact that Kennedy’s Catholicism was unpopular in the South. “I grew up in a home and community in which there was no anti-racial feeling, or anti-Semitic feeling, or anti-Catholic feeling,” he says. “I couldn’t believe that the Methodist newspaper had a headline, ‘Why does John Patterson want a Catholic for president?’ One Sunday, every Methodist preacher in the circuit preached a sermon against me and John Kennedy. Even my own preacher.”

Patterson looks back at his reaction to his preacher’s sermon with some embarrassment, showing that while his values may have remained the same, he has at least mellowed. “I made a fool out of myself,” Patterson says. “I got mad and sent for him to come to my office, and to my surprise he came. I asked him, ‘Show me in the book where the Methodist church, the Methodist dogma is anti-Catholic. I just can’t believe that’s here.’ And of course, he couldn’t show me, except he was mighty nice, much nicer than I was. It just shows you what a fellow can do when he’s young and naïve. I would handle that totally different now. I’d laugh and slap him on the back.”