John Malcolm Patterson was born in Goldville, Alabama, on 27th September, 1921. He joined the US Army in 1939 and during the Second World War and took part in the campaigns in Sicily, Italy, France and Germany. By 1945 he had achieved the rank of major.
On his return to the United States he obtained a law degree from the University of Alabama. In 1951 he rejoined the army and took part in the Korean War. In 1953 he joined the law practice of his father, Albert Patterson.
The following year his father campaigned to become the Attorney General of Alabama. He claimed that he would tackle the corruption occurring in Phenix City and Russell County. His opponent in the election, Lee Porter, was accused of buying and stealing votes but on 10th June, 1954, he was declared the winner. On 18th June, Patterson was walking to his car, which was parked in an alley off Fifth Avenue in Phenix City, when an unidentified gunman walked up to him and shot him three times. Governor Gordon Persons declared martial law in the city. Three state officials, Chief Deputy Sheriff Albert Fuller, Circuit Solicitor Arch Ferrell and Attorney General Si Garrett, were arrested for the murder. Of the three, only Fuller was convicted; he was sentenced to life imprisonment, but was released after 10 years.
Later that year John Patterson was elected to the post of Attorney General on a policy of tackling organized crime and public corruption. However, once in power, he concentrated on dealing with the emerging civil rights movement. In the 1950s the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP) was involved in the struggle to end segregation on buses and trains. In 1954 segregation on inter-state buses was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. However, states in the Deep South, including Alabama continued their own policy of transport segregation. This usually involved whites sitting in the front and blacks sitting nearest to the front had to give up their seats to any whites that were standing.
African American people who disobeyed the state's transport segregation policies were arrested and fined. On 1st December, 1955, Rosa Parks, a middle-aged tailor's assistant from Montgomery, Alabama, who was tired after a hard day's work, refused to give up her seat to a white man. After her arrest, Martin Luther King, a pastor at the local Baptist Church, helped organize protests against bus segregation. It was decided that black people in Montgomery would refuse to use the buses until passengers were completely integrated. King was arrested and his house was fire-bombed. Others involved in the Montgomery Bus Boycott also suffered from harassment and intimidation, but the protest continued. Patterson responded to this crisis by banning of NAACP from operating in the state of Alabama.
With the backing of the Ku Klux Klan, Patterson defeated George Wallace, backed by the NAACP in the Democratic primaries and was elected Governor in 1958. It has been claimed that this defeat turned Wallace from a civil rights supporter to an ardent segregationist. In his inaugural address Patterson declared: "I will oppose with every ounce of energy I possess and will use every power at my command to prevent any mixing of white and Negro races in the classrooms of this state."
A supporter of the state's segregationist policies, Patterson ordered the expulsion of black students for staging a sit-in at Alabama State University, and defended the state's voter registration policies against leaders of the civil rights movement. He also said integration would come to Alabama only "over my dead body."
Transport segregation continued in some parts of the United States, so in 1961, a civil rights group, the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE) began to organize Freedom Rides. After three days of training in non-violent techniques, black and white volunteers sat next to each other as they travelled through the Deep South. Governor James Patterson commented that: "The people of Alabama are so enraged that I cannot guarantee protection for this bunch of rabble-rousers."
James Farmer, national director of CORE, and thirteen volunteers left Washington on 4th May, 1961, for the Deep South. The group were split between two buses. They travelled in integrated seating and visited "white only" restaurants. When they reached Anniston, Alabama on 14th May the Freedom Riders were attacked by men armed with clubs, bricks, iron pipes and knives. One of the buses was fire-bombed and the mob held the doors shut, intent on burning the riders to death.
James Peck later explained what happened: "When the Greyhound bus pulled into Anniston, it was immediately surrounded by an angry mob armed with iron bars. They set about the vehicle, denting the sides, breaking windows, and slashing tires. Finally, the police arrived and the bus managed to depart. But the mob pursued in cars. Within minutes, the pursuing mob was hitting the bus with iron bars. The rear window was broken and a bomb was hurled inside. All the passengers managed to escape before the bus burst into flames and was totally destroyed. Policemen, who had been standing by, belatedly came on the scene. A couple of them fired into the air. The mob dispersed and the injured were taken to a local hospital."
During the Freedom Riders campaign the Attorney General, Robert Kennedy was phoning Jim Eastland “seven or eight or twelve times each day, about what was going to happen when they got to Mississippi and what needed to be done. That was finally decided was that there wouldn’t be any violence: as they came over the border, they’d lock them all up.” When they were arrested Kennedy issued a statement as Attorney General criticizing the activities of the Freedom Riders. Kennedy sent John Seigenthaler to accompany the Freedom Riders.
The Freedom Riders now traveled onto Montgomery, Alabama. One of the passengers, James Zwerg later recalled: "As we were going from Birmingham to Montgomery, we'd look out the windows and we were kind of overwhelmed with the show of force - police cars with sub-machine guns attached to the backseats, planes going overhead... We had a real entourage accompanying us. Then, as we hit the city limits, it all just disappeared. As we pulled into the bus station a squad car pulled out - a police squad car. The police later said they knew nothing about our coming, and they did not arrive until after 20 minutes of beatings had taken place. Later we discovered that the instigator of the violence was a police sergeant who took a day off and was a member of the Klan. They knew we were coming. It was a set-up."
The passangers were attacked by a large mob. They were dragged from the bus and beaten by men with baseball bats and lead piping. Taylor Branch, the author of Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-63 (1988) wrote: "One of the men grabbed Zwerg's suitcase and smashed him in the face with it. Others slugged him to the ground, and when he was dazed beyond resistance, one man pinned Zwerg's head between his knees so that the others could take turns hitting him. As they steadily knocked out his teeth, and his face and chest were streaming blood, a few adults on the perimeter put their children on their shoulders to view the carnage." James Zwerg later argued: "There was noting particularly heroic in what I did. If you want to talk about heroism, consider the black man who probably saved my life. This man in coveralls, just off of work, happened to walk by as my beating was going on and said 'Stop beating that kid. If you want to beat someone, beat me.' And they did. He was still unconscious when I left the hospital. I don't know if he lived or died."
According to Ann Bausum: "Zwerg was denied prompt medical attention at the end of the riot on the pretext that no white ambulances were available for transport. He remained unconscious in a Montgomery hospital for two-and-a-half days after the beating and stayed hospitalized for a total of five days. Only later did doctors diagnose that his injuries included a broken back."
John Seigenthaler was knocked unconscious when he went to the aid of one of the passengers. James Zwerg, who was badly beaten-up claimed: "Segregation must be stopped. It must be broken down. Those of us on the Freedom Ride will continue. No matter what happens we are dedicated to this. We will take the beatings. We are willing to accept death. We are going to keep coming until we can ride anywhere in the South."
The Ku Klux Klan hoped that this violent treatment would stop other young people from taking part in freedom rides. However, over the next six months over a thousand people took part in freedom rides. With the local authorities unwilling to protect these people, President John F. Kennedy sent Byron White and 500 federal marshals from the North to do the job.
Robert Kennedy was a close friend of Governor John Patterson. Kennedy explained in his interview with Anthony Lewis: “I had this long relationship with John Patterson (the governor of Alabama). He was our great pal in the South. So he was doubly exercised at me – who was his friend and pal – to have involved him with suddenly surrounding this church with marshals and having marshals descend with no authority, he felt, on his cities… He couldn’t understand why the Kennedys were doing this to him.”
Robert Kennedy petitioned the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) to draft regulations to end racial segregation in bus terminals. The ICC was reluctant but in September 1961 it issued the necessary orders and it went into effect on 1st November. However, James Lawson, one of the Freedom Riders, argued: "We must recognize that we are merely in the prelude to revolution, the beginning, not the end, not even the middle. I do not wish to minimize the gains we have made thus far. But it would be well to recognize that we have been receiving concessions, not real changes. The sit-ins won concessions, not structural changes; the Freedom Rides won great concessions, but not real change."
John Patterson appears to have forgiven President John F. Kennedy for interfering in Alabama's racial segregation policies. According to Seymour M. Hersh, Patterson played an important role in the Bay of Pigs attack against Fidel Castro and his new government in Cuba. Patterson gave permission for the Alabama Air National Guard aircraft to be used to transport Cuban emigres to training grounds in Nicaragua.
In 1962, the Constitution of Alabama prevented Patterson from seeking a second term. George Wallace was elected as his replacement. In 1966, when Wallace could not seek a second term either, Patterson made another bid for the Democratic nomination but was defeated by Wallace's wife Lurleen Wallace, who subsequently became governor.
For many years Patterson taught American Government at Troy University. In 1984, Patterson was appointed to the State Court of Criminal Appeals, where he remained until his retirement in 1997.
Robert Clem made a 90-minute documentary film on John Patterson that was completed in 2007. John Patterson: In the Wake of the Assassins, features an extended interview with Patterson himself as well as interviews with journalists and historians.
On a bus traveling through the Deep South, a youthful Negro said calmly: "We can take anything the white man can dish out, but we want our rights. We know what they are - and we want them now." In the midst of a sleepless night in his Justice Department office in Washington, U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy, 36, hung up his telephone and said wearily: "It's like playing Russian roulette." And in Montgomery, the capital of Alabama and the birthplace of the Confederacy, Governor John Patterson, 39, wearing a pure white carnation in his lapel, complained bitterly: "I'm getting tired of being called up in the middle of the night and being ordered to do this and ordered to do that."
The young Negro, the young Attorney General and the young Southern Governor were central figures last week in a national drama. It was a drama of conflict and violence. It saw U.S. marshals and martial law in Alabama. It saw cops with police dogs on patrol in Mississippi. It was the drama of the Freedom Riders, and it represented a new and massive assault against segregation in the U.S. South.
The assault was launched late last month when a band of six whites and seven Negroes set out to ride by bus from Washington to New Orleans. The integrated trip was sponsored by the Congress of Racial Equality, a Manhattan-based organization. Its purpose was to prove, by provoking trouble, that Southern interstate travel is still segregated in fact, although integrated by law. The original Freedom Riders passed with little incident through Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia. Then they came to Alabama - where they found the trouble they wanted.
For that, they could in part thank Governor John Patterson. A militant segregationist who solicited Ku Klux Klan support in his election campaign, Patterson once said that integration would come to Alabama only "over my dead body." In his inaugural address Patterson declared: "I will oppose with every ounce of energy I possess and will use every power at my command to prevent any mixing of white and Negro races in the classrooms of this state." Said he as the Freedom Riders approached: "The people of Alabama are so enraged that I cannot guarantee protection for this bunch of rabble-rousers."
Thus confident that state authority would not stand in their way, Alabama mobs attacked the Freedom Riders in Anniston and Birmingham. Battered and bruised, the original Freedom Riders decided to discontinue their bus trip and fly from Birmingham to New Orleans.
But what they had started was far from ended. Until then, little active support had been given the Freedom Riders by the Negro students who last year fought and won the sit-in battles against segregated Southern lunch counters. When the first Freedom Riders gave up, these students took over. They vowed that they would travel all the way to New Orleans by bus - or, literally, die trying. They were tactical disciples of Martin Luther King Jr., the Negro minister whose Gandhian methods of nonviolence won municipal bus integration in Montgomery in 1956. Willing to suffer beatings and endure jail, the students last week jumped onto regularly scheduled buses and headed south.
In Montgomery, the new Freedom Riders were mauled by another mob. Again Governor Patterson failed to act - and at that point Attorney General Bobby Kennedy reluctantly sent in 400 U.S. marshals, a force that was later increased to 666. The marshals (mostly deputized Treasury agents) were led by Deputy Attorney General Byron ("Whizzer") White, who met with Patterson in a long and angry conference. White carefully explained that the U.S. was not sponsoring the Freedom Riders' movement, but that the Government was determined to protect the riders' legal rights (see box). John Patterson was having no part of such explanations. Alabama, he cried, could maintain its own law and order, and the marshals were therefore unnecessary. He even threatened to arrest the marshals if they violated any local law.
Even as White and Patterson talked, Montgomery's radio stations broadcast the news that Negroes would hold a mass meeting that night at the First Baptist Church. All day long, carloads of grim-faced whites converged on Montgomery.
That night the church was packed with 1,200 Negroes. In the basement a group of young men and women clustered together and clasped hands like a football team about to take the field. They were the Freedom Riders. Everybody say "Freedom'" ordered one of the leaders. "Freedom," said the group. "Say it again," said the leader. "Freedom!" shouted the group. "Are we together?" asked the leader. "Yes. we are together," came the reply. With that, the young Negroes filed upstairs and reappeared behind the pulpit. "Ladies and gentlemen," cried the Rev. Ralph Abernathy as the crowd screamed to its feet, "the Freedom Riders."
"Give Them a Grenade." Slowly, in twos and threes, the mob started to form outside the church. Men with shirts unbuttoned to the waist sauntered down North Ripley Street, soon were almost at the steep front steps of the church. "We want to integrate too," yelled a voice. Cried another: "We'll get those n*****s." A barrage of bottles burst at the feet of some curious Negroes who peered out the church door. The worst racial battle in Montgomery's history was about to begin.
Despite the long and obvious buildup toward trouble, only a handful of Montgomery cops were present - and they looked the other way. Into the breach moved a squad of U.S. marshals - the men Patterson had said were not needed. Contrary to Justice Department statements, the hastily deputized marshals had no riot training. They moved uncertainly to their task until a mild-looking alcohol tax unit supervisor from Florida named William D. Behen took command. "If we're going to do it, let's do it!" he yelled. "What say, shall we give them a grenade?" Whereupon Behen lobbed a tear-gas grenade into the crowd.