Patterson grew up in a prominent political family and earned a Bronze Star for his service in World War II. He went on to join the law practice of his father, Albert Patterson, who was a major opponent of the mobs controlling the notorious vice hub of Phenix City. The elder Patterson campaigned for state attorney general in 1954 as a reformer and ultimately won the Democratic nomination, which was the only contest that mattered in Alabama at the time, despite alleged vote-buying by his opponents. He was assassinated by a gunman days later, though, an act that led the state to declare martial law in Phenix City and soon resulted in the downfall of the city’s corrupt rulers.
Patterson’s allies convinced his son to run in his place, and Alabama Democrats assented, giving John Patterson his father’s spot on the ballot. (The saga was highly fictionalized the following year in a film called The Phenix City Story, which Patterson used clips of in his subsequent bid for governor.) As Alabama’s top law enforcement official, Patterson made a name for himself both for combating organized crime and for ardently fighting to uphold the state’s Jim Crow laws. While he was unable to stop the Montgomery Bus Boycott that began in 1955 when Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a segregated bus, his tactics essentially bankrupted the state NAACP and delighted segregationists.
Patterson soon set his sights higher and launched a campaign for governor in 1958 by promising that “there will be no mixing of the races while I am in office.” His main opponent was Wallace, a Barbour County judge who, while also a supporter of segregation, was widely viewed by white voters as a moderate for the times. While that perception might seem astonishing now, Wallace even earned the endorsement of the NAACP; the Ku Klux Klan, meanwhile, openly supported Patterson.
But racial moderation (such as it was) was not in vogue, and Patterson won the Democratic primary in a runoff by a 56-44 margin. He would spend much of his four years as governor passing policies to improve the state’s schools, old age pensions, and infrastructure. He was also an early Southern supporter of John F. Kennedy’s 1960 campaign and helped supply the failed Bay of Pigs invasion the next year. Patterson’s governorship, though, would be defined nationally by his continuing opposition to civil rights. In 1961, Time magazine put the governor on its cover for an issue focused on the Freedom Riders, of whom he said, “I refuse to guarantee their safe passage.”
Arguably Patterson’s biggest impact on politics, though, came from the lessons Wallace learned from losing to him. An aide later recounted that Wallace told him, “You know, I tried to talk about good roads and good schools and all these things that have been part of my career, and nobody listened. And then I began talking about [the n-word], and they stomped the floor.” Alabama governors at the time were barred from running for a second consecutive term, opening the door for Wallace to handily get elected as Patterson’s successor in 1962 by running the type of racist campaign that had beaten him four years earlier.
Patterson soon found himself eclipsed by his former rival at home. He ran for his old job in 1966 in a crowded primary dominated by First Lady Lurleen Wallace, who was running as a proxy for her termed-out husband, but took a mere 3% of the vote. Patterson went on to badly lose the 1970 primary for chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court to Howell Heflin, who would later serve in the Senate. He did eventually eventually return to public life in 1984 when George Wallace, who spent this final term as governor apologizing for his old stances, appointed him to the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals.
Patterson retired in 1997, though he unexpectedly had one more role to play in state politics. In 2004, he was one of seven retired judges randomly chosen for a special panel after Roy Moore was ousted as chief justice of the state Supreme Court for refusing to comply with a federal judge’s order to remove a monument of the Ten Commandments from the courthouse grounds. The panel unanimously upheld Moore’s firing, to which Moore characteristically responded by blasting the judges as an “illegally appointed, politically selected” body.
Patterson would spend decades distancing himself from his racist actions and commending former opponents like the Freedom Riders for their bravery. However, he still was reluctant to outright apologize for what he’d said and done. Patterson notably said of the 1958 campaign, “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 added, “If you didn’t do that, you wouldn’t get elected. You might as well go home and forget it.”
P.S. Patterson spent his final four years as the oldest living former governor of any state. The title now shifts to the 97-year-old Al Quie, a Minnesota Republican who is three days older than Virginia Republican Linwood Holton.