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Patterson, John Malcolm

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September 27, 1921 to June 4, 2021

Patterson’s gubernatorial term in Alabama was a turbulent one due to his enforcement of state-sponsored segregation and the increase of civil rights activity in Alabama. During his tenure as governor the student sit-in movement was taking hold, and Martin Luther King was indicted for perjury for his 1956 and 1958 Alabama income tax returns (see State of Alabama v. M. L. King, Jr.). King felt that the charges against him were an “attempt on the part of the state of Alabama to harass me for the role that I have played in the civil rights struggle” (Papers 5:371).

Patterson, born in Goldville, Alabama, received his law degree from the University of Alabama in 1949. In 1954 he was elected attorney general of Alabama, and, in reaction to the Montgomery bus boycott, in 1956 he successfully barred the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) from participating in activities in the state. In conjunction with the case, Patterson served King with a subpoena requiring him to testify regarding the NAACP’s policies toward fundraising, collecting dues, and soliciting new members.

After his indictment for perjury in 1960, King’s supporters took out a full-page advertisement in the New York Times entitled “Heed Their Rising Voices,” requesting funds to support King’s defense, support student protesters, and the voting rights struggle. The fundraising appeal, however, led to unexpected problems when Patterson and other Alabama officials filed libel suits against the Times, King, and four Alabama ministers whose names were used in the advertisement, charging that it contained defamatory statements regarding the student protests. Patterson wrote King in May 1960, demanding that King publish a retraction to the fundraising appeal. The four Alabama ministers became part of the landmark free speech case New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, and Patterson dropped his case against King after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in their favor.

In addition to the lawsuits, the student sit-ins in Montgomery attracted additional publicity in 1960, when Patterson ordered the president of Alabama State College, H. Councill Trenholm, to expel students and faculty participating in movement activities. King wrote Patterson expressing his disappointment at the anticipated “purge” of faculty, and affirming the teachers’ “academic freedom and the right of citizenship” (Papers 5:425; 426). After Patterson threatened to fire Trenholm, the beleaguered college president fired history professor L. D. Reddick; Jo Ann Robinson and Mary Fair Burks resigned at the close of the spring semester.

Violent attacks against freedom riders in Anniston and Birmingham, Alabama, in 1961 drew media attention again, and the John F. Kennedy administration was forced to react. After several attempts to reach Patterson by phone to discuss the attacks on the freedom riders, U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy sent Assistant Attorney General John Seigenthaler to speak with Patterson. At the conclusion of the meeting, Patterson reluctantly agreed to use state resources to protect the safety of the protesters. Within days of this incident, King hosted a mass meeting at Ralph Abernathy’s First Baptist Church in Montgomery to support the freedom riders. As the mass meeting progressed, a mob of whites throwing rocks, bricks, and Molotov cocktails surrounded the church, making it impossible for those in the mass meeting to leave. During the meeting, King took the podium and he placed much of the blame on Patterson, whose “consistent preaching of defiance of the law, his vitriolic public pronouncements, and his irresponsible actions created the atmosphere in which violence could thrive” (King, 21 May 1961). The Kennedy administration used federal marshals to protect the church until they were eventually replaced by Alabama National Guard troops under the governor’s control. King and the other protesters remained in the church until the mob was dispersed the following morning.

After Patterson’s term as governor ended in 1963 he practiced law in Montgomery. He was defeated in a 1966 bid for governor by Lurleen Wallace, wife of George Wallace, Patterson’s 1963 successor as Alabama governor and a staunch segregationist. In 1972 he ran unsuccessfully for Chief Justice of the State Supreme Court but was appointed to the State Court of Criminal Appeals in 1984, where he remained until his retirement in 1997.


Arsenault, Freedom Riders, 2006.

Committee to Defend Martin Luther King and the Struggle for Freedom in the South, “Heed Their Rising Voices,” 29 March 1960, in Papers 5:382.

Introduction, in Papers 5:25; 26.

King, Interview on Arrest following Indictment by Grand Jury of Montgomery County, 17 February 1960, in Papers 5:370–372.

King, Address at Freedom Riders Rally at First Baptist Church, 21 May 1961, MLKJP-GAMK.

King to Fred D. Gray, 14 December 1960, in Papers 5:580.

King to Patrick Murphy Malin, Roy Wilkins, and Carl J. Megel, 16 June 1960, in Papers 5:471–472.

King to Patterson, 14 April 1960, in Papers 5:425–426.

King to Patterson, 9 August 1960, in Papers 5:495–496.

Patterson, Interview by King Papers Project staff, 18 July 2001.

Patterson to King, 12 July 1956, in Papers 3:319–320.

Patterson to King, 9 May 1960, in Papers 5:456–458.