William Patterson was born in San Francisco on 27th August, 1891. His mother had been a slave and spent her childhood on a Virginia plantation.
While studying at the University of California he began reading The Crisis, The Masses and The Messenger. After graduating with a law degree in 1919 he joined the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP) where he met his future wife, Louise Thompson.
Patterson spent time in London where he met George Lansbury and other leading figures in the Labour Party. He also contributed articles to the socialist newspaper, The Daily Herald on the problems faced by black people in the United States. Patterson intended to move to Africa but Lansbury convinced him to return to the United States.
Patterson met Paul Robeson in 1920. The two men became very active in left-wing politics. Patterson also became friends with Heywood Broun who tried to persuade Patterson to join the Socialist Party. Patterson rejected the idea and eventually became a member of the American Communist Party, Patterson was a regular contributor to the Daily Worker. Patterson was also a regular contributor to the Daily Worker.
In 1923 Patterson and two friends opened a law office in Harlem. As a lawyer, Patterson was involved in several campaigns to free people wrongly convicted of criminal acts. This included the defence of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, two anarchists who were eventually executed in August, 1927. Patterson also worked on the Scottsboro Case, where nine young black men were falsely charged with the rape of two white women on a train.
Patterson went to the Soviet Union in 1927 and enrolled in the Far East University and took part in the Sixth Comintern Congress in Moscow. In 1930 Patterson was a delegate to the World Conference Against Racism and Anti-Semitism in Paris, France.
After arriving back in the United States Patterson returned to his law practice in Harlem. Patterson was also executive secretary of the International Labor Defense and leader of the Civil Rights Congress.
In 1951 Patterson joined with Paul Robeson, Eslanda Goode, Harry Haywood, Mary Church Terrell, Robert Treuhaft, Jessica Mitford, Louise Thompson to deliver a petition to the United Nations which charged the United States government with genocide. The petition was a detailed documentation of hundreds of cases of murder, bombing, torture of black people in the United States. It provided details of the "mass murder on the score of race that had been sanctified by law" and stated that "never have so many individuals been so ruthlessly destroyed amid so many tributes to the sacredness of the individual".
Patterson was also involved in the defence of Angela Davis and Black Panthers leaders arrested during the 1960s. His book The Man Who Cried Genocide, was published in 1971. William Patterson died in 1980.
My mother often talked to us about her childhood on the Virginia plantation where she was born as a slave in 1850 and had lived until she was ten. It was in cotton lands not far from Norfolk - she knew that because her grandfather, who often drove to the "big city," was seldom gone for long. Her father, William Gait, was a slave who belonged to the owner of an adjacent plantation, and as a child she saw very little of him. As coachman for his master - who was also his father - he drove back and forth on visits to the Turner plantation, where he met and later married my grandmother, Elizabeth Mary Turner.
The big house was set back from the magnolia-lined plantation road leading to the main highway to Norfolk. But my mother lived in the slave quarters, which were quite some distance back from the manor house. Here, separated from her mother and grandmother, she lived with older slave women who were part of the crew that served the master's immediate household.
My grandmother was personal maid to the white wife of her father and master; my great-grandmother was head of the house slaves and also her owner's slave woman (at that time the word "mistress" was not used in this sense). My mother had learned of her grandmother's role from gossip among the field hands, but it was beyond her to question the morality of this situation. Morality played no part in the relationships between white slaveowners and their slave women - the masters' morals were class morals in judging the slave system or their own personal relations with slaves.
According to the gossip, my great-grandmother first came to the notice of the big house through her ability as a cook. In line with the general mistreatment of field hands - rags for clothing, shacks for living quarters, cheap and primitive medication - they were never well fed. When my mother's grandmother was living among the field slaves, she got the slaves who slaughtered and cut up the hogs and cattle to bring her the entrails, hooves, heads and other "throwaway" parts, along with similar leftovers from chicken killings. Somehow she had acquired great skill in the use of herbs for cooking as well as for healing. She converted the leftovers into such tasty dishes that she soon gained a reputation as the best cook on the plantation. Before long she was ordered into the big house to cook for the master's family. She was an attractive woman and, as the story goes, the master found more than her cooking to his taste. Eventually she gave birth to three of his children.
One day, as I walked to the hotel from the university, I was attracted by a copy of the Crisis, on display in the window of a bookstore. This was the official organ of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and what particularly struck me was the headline "Close Ranks." It turned out to be the title of an editorial written by W. E. B. Du Bois, the magazine's editor. His injunction that colored people should support the U.S. war effort did not correspond with my own thoughts on the subject. But I wanted to examine the arguments in support of the opposite viewpoint. Walking into that store was like walking into a new life. Emanuel Levine, a short, stocky man of about 30, with a shock of black hair and a muscular body that made me think of a wrestler, greeted me cordially.
It was not surprising that a discontented Black law student should find pleasure in a place where he could engage in friendly and informative discussions. At school they were teaching me to accommodate to the racist society in which I lived, while in the bookstore I began to learn some fundamentals about the nature of that society and how to go about changing it.
I became acquainted with the Masses, a militant magazine that published lively social criticism of the entire American scene. I was introduced to Marxist literature and books; I read the Messenger, a magazine published in New York by two young Black radicals - A. Philip Randolph and Chandler Owen. I was stirred by its analyses of the source of Black oppression and the attempt to identify it with the international revolution against working-class oppression and colonialism. This was an enriching and exhilarating experience.
As my return to the United States approached, I began to evaluate many aspects of the socialist country in which I had had the good fortune to study, to travel, to learn, to participate in the anti-fascist struggle. The peoples of the USSR were faced with a mountain of problems in the building of a socialist society. The tsar had bequeathed them a heritage of poverty, ignorance, medieval farming techniques, racial and national prejudice. In addition. World War I, the international enemies of the Revolution, and the defeated counterrevolution had wrought wide devastation. Millions of families were homeless, tens of thousands of orphaned children wandered across the land, stealing to live.
It is difficult to convey the impact of a place like Moscow in 1927, particularly on a Negro. Just the strangeness of the city - the architecture, the foods, the clothes, the customs. The quiet darkness of the streets at night. There was nothing to compare with the massive explosion of neon signs in New York, the sidewalk pitchmen, the blaring music, the flags and bands of our hard-sell society, the general Main Street hysteria - nor the river of autos, taxicabs and trucks that fill our own downtown streets with the roar of a giant waterfall.
The second impact, if one is an American Negro, comes in the discovery that there is no racial tension in the air. One looks at, talks to, works with white men and women and youth as an equal. It is as if one had suffered with a painful affliction for many years and had suddenly awakened to discover the pain had gone. The Russians seemed to give a man's skin coloration only a descriptive value, looking immediately past this attribute to the significant human differences of character, mind and heart.
I saw the people of the USSR facing up to the tasks of removing the ruins of the old and building the new. Under the leadership of the Communist Party, an awe-inspiring creative explosion was under way, touching every aspect of life. From their western borders to the Pacific, the people were mobilized to solve their tremendous problems.
There were four jobs waiting for every available worker. Yes, there were homeless children but homes and work and educational camps were being built for them and they were becoming citizens of their motherland. Here was a people who had found a way to throw the fantastic power of their collective strength into solving the basic problems of living. In the process, the participants were remaking themselves; learning to think and work collectively - for the benefit of all. The remnants of racism and religious bigotry of tsarism was being fought tooth and nail.
I had seen a new man in the making and I liked what I had seen.
With the help of my new progressive and Communist friends, I began to explore the roots of society's most rampant diseases - racism and exploitation. They lay deep in the imperative for continuing profit and power among those who controlled our economy, our legal system, our government. As time went on, it became crystal-clear to me that the horrors of colour persecution and poverty could only be fully grappled with in a struggle against the economic and social forces that had spawned them. In my special concern with the oppression of Black men and women, I felt it was essential to achieve unity between Black and white workers - nothing was more certain than that the powers that be were concerned with preventing that unity at all costs.
If, in these pages, I direct my sharpest barbs against racism, it is because I could not get away from it - it was my constant and unwanted companion. How could I possibly speak dispassionately of the crimes committed in its name? But the military-industrial-governmental complex lays heavy burdens on other minority peoples as well as on white workers, turning them, periodically or chronically into jobless, homeless expatriates in a land of plenty. To me, the only hope lay in socialism - the only system that had shown itself capable of ending the terrible contradictions of a profit society. When I saw that the Communist Party was taking the lead in the struggle for the rights of minorities and of labor, exposing the role of imperialism in conquest and war, I found that my constant concern with the racist issue became an integral part of the broader struggle for human rights everywhere.
There was John Dos Passos, faithful son of Harvard, and John Howard Lawson, another one of the 'New Playwrights' from Greenwich Village. There was Clarina Michelson, ready to do the hard work again, and William Patterson, a Negro lawyer from New York, running the greatest risk of any of them, with his black face not to be disguised. Just up Beacon Street was the Shaw Monument, with figures in perennial bronze, of unmistakable Negro boys in uniforms, led by a young Boston blueblood on horseback; no doubt Patterson had looked at this, and drawn courage from it. ...
The trooper speeds on; he has spied the black face, and wants that most of all. The Negro runs, and the rider rears the front of his steed, intending to strike him down with the iron-shod hoofs. But fortunately there is a tree, and the Negro leaps behind it; and a man can run around a tree faster than the best-trained police-mount - the dapper and genial William Patterson proves it by making five complete circuits before he runs into the arms of an ordinary cop, who grabs him by the collar and tears off his sign and tramples it in the dirt, and then starts to march him away. 'Well,' he remarks sociably, 'This is the first time I ever see a nigger bastard that was a communist.' The lawyer is surprised, because he has been given to understand that that particular word is barred from the Common. Mike Crowley was so shocked, two weeks ago, when Mary Donovan tacked up a sign to a tree: 'Did you see what I did to those anarchistic bastards? - Judge Thayer.' But apparently the police did not have to obey their own laws.
It had begun March 25, 1931, when nine Negro lads were dragged by a sheriff and his deputies from a 47-car freight train that was passing through Paint Rock, Alabama, on its way to Memphis. The train was crowded with youths, both white and Black, aimlessly wandering about. They were riding the freights in search of food and employment and they wandered about aimlessly in the train. There was a fight, and some white lads telegraphed ahead that they had been jumped and thrown off the train by "niggers." At Paint Rock, a sheriff and his armed posse boarded the train and began their search for the "niggers."
Two white girls dressed in overalls were taken out of a car; white and Black youths alike were arrested and charged with vagrancy. But the presence of the white girls added a new dimension to the arrest. The girls were first taken to the office of Dr. R. R. Bridges for physical examination. No bruises were found on their bodies, no were they unduly nervous. A small amount of semen was found in the vagina of each of them but it was at least a day old.
The doctor gave his report to the sheriff and obviously it ruled out rape in the preceding 24 hours. But for the Alabama authorities that made no difference - they came up with a full-blown charge of rape. The nine Black lads stood accused.
The second day after the arrests the sheriff tried to get the girls to say they had been raped by the youths, and both refused. They were sent back to jail, but a Southern sheriff can exert a lot of pressure, and on the following day Victoria Price, the older of the two women (who had a police record), caved in. Ruby Bates, the 17-year-old, an almost illiterate mill hand, still refused to corroborate the charge. But on the fourth day she, too, succumbed to the pressure. The Roman holiday could now be staged.
On March 31, 1931, 20 indictments were handed down by a grand jury, emphasizing the charge of rape and assault. The nine boys were immediately arraigned before the court in Scottsboro. All pleaded not guilty.
The first exposure of the infamous frame-up appeared April 2, 1931, in the pages of the Daily Worker, which called on the people to initiate mass protests and demonstrations to save nine innocent Black youths from legal lynching. On April 4, the Southern Worker, published in Chattanooga, Tenn., carried a first-hand report from Scottsboro by Helen Marcy describing the lynch spirit that had been aroused around the case. The trail began on April 7 - with the outcome a foregone conclusion.
Thousands of people poured into Scottsboro - if there were "niggers" to be lynched, they wanted to see the show. A local brass band played "There'll Be a Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight" outside the courthouse while the all-white jury was being picked. The state militia was called out - ostensibly to protect the prisoners. Its attitude toward the lads, one of whom was bayonetted by a guardsman, was little different from that of the lynch mob. In short order, Charles Weems, 20, and Clarence Norris, 19, the two older lads, were declared guilty by the jury. On the same day, Haywood Patterson, 17, was the next victim. And on April 8, Ozie Powell, 14; Eugene Williams, 13; Olin Montgomery, 17; Andy Wright, 18; and Willie Robertson, 17, were declared guilty. The hearing of Roy Wright, 14 years old, ran into "legal" difficulties. The prosecution had asked the jury to give him life imprisonment, but eleven jurors voted for death, and it was declared a mistrial.
I had an ally in William L. Patterson, who often came out from New York on a national tour to meet with CRC chapters around the country. Pat, then in his late fifties, was a formidable figure in the black Party leadership. The son of a slave, he was a practising lawyer at the time of the Sacco and Vanzetti case which had led him into the Party. As a leader in the International Labour Defense he had organized the mass defence of the Scottsboro Boys in the thirties. Although Pat operated on a national and international level - one of his many dazzling achievements was presentation of the CRC petition, 'We Charge Genocide: The Crime of Government Against the Negro People,' at a United Nations meeting in Paris - he always had time for the lower-echelon CRC workers, and took a deep interest in the day-to-day organizational problems that beset us.