John Patterson was born in Goldville, Alabama on September 27, 1921. He
served in both World War II and the Korean War, before returning to join his father's law firm. His father was elected to the post of attorney general, pledging to clean up the rampant crime. After he was murdered, John Patterson was elected to carry out the remainder of his
Patterson was elected governor of the state of Alabama in 1959. He worked
hard to improve the conditions of roads, mental institutions, old age pensions, waterways and docks, and loan reform. However, his terms as both attorney general and governor included racial tensions. Patterson banned the NAACP from operating in the state, expelled black students who staged a sit-in at Alabama State University, and fought over voter registration policies.
After his one term, Patterson moved to Montgomery, Alabama where he practiced law. He was defeated in the 1966 governor's election by Lurleen Wallace. He then ran for Chief Justice of the State Supreme Court in 1972 but was defeated. However, he served on the State Court of Criminal Appeals from 1984 until retiring in 1997.
This is an interview I conducted with John Patterson, dated February 13, 1990. At the time, he was serving as a judge on the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals.
Chris: What college did you go to?
Judge Patterson: I started as a freshman in 1945 at the University of Alabama.
Chris: What did you get degrees in?
Judge Patterson: I only had one degree, and that is a Doctorate of Jurisprudence which is a doctorate of law.
Chris: What was your childhood dream?
Judge Patterson: Well the first thing I wanted to be was a streetcar conductor. I also wanted to be a writer and scientist, but I always wanted to be a lawyer like my dad.
Chris: What did you do when you were attorney general?
Judge Patterson: I became attorney general to take my father's place. He ran for attorney general to stop gambling operations in Phenix City. He was shot down by the mob. I became attorney general to stop gambling in Alabama and to find my father's killers.
Chris: What was t he most important thing you did while you were attorney
Judge Patterson: The most important thing I did was the successful cleanup of the gambling operations. I also got rid of loan sharks.
Chris: When did you run for governor?
Judge Patterson: I ran for governor in 1958. I believe there were ten candidates in the race including George Wallace. George Wallace and I had a run-off which I won. I was inaugurated on January 19, 1959 and server for four years until January 19, 1963.
Chris: Why did you want to be governor?
Judge Patterson: There are a couple of reasons. The main reason was because I had not completely cleaned up crime in Alabama. I also had ideas about improving education, bridges, docks, and I wanted an opportunity to see what I could do.
Chris: What was your platform?
Judge Patterson: My platform was law enforcement, new roads and bridges,
development of the state docks, improvement of schools, and raising teachers' salaries.
Chris: Did you like being governor?
Judge Patterson: Yes, but it's not an easy job. You live in a goldfish bowl. Everything you do and say is watched by the press. You have no privacy. I liked living in the Governor's Mansion, and I traveled all over the world representing Alabama. I had an airplane and two yachts, and it was a great life. I hated to give it up.
Chris: Why did you only serve one term?
Judge Patterson: Well, at that time the Alabama Constitution prohibited a governor from succeeding himself.
Chris: What was your biggest accomplishment while governor?
Judge Patterson: My biggest accomplishment was increasing old age pensions and the work I did in education.
Chris: What was the most important event while you were governor?
Judge Patterson: The most important event was the breaking of ground of the Marshall Space Flight Center.
Chris: What was your biggest disappointment?
Judge Patterson: The biggest disappointment was not being able to solve the race question. We had a lot of turmoil because of racially segregated schools and public facilities. Alabama's laws at that time required segregation in public schools by race. Lawsuits were being brought and efforts were being made by the black community to do something about that. It was a time of trouble in Alabama.
Chris: What did you like least about being governor?
Judge Patterson: The legislature. I guess the biggest problem a governor has is dealing with the legislature. It's one hundred and five members of the House and thirty-five in the Senate. They're all individuals and all important and have their own agenda, and the governor has his program. You have to negotiate and bargain with them, and you usually end up with half a loaf.
Chris: If you were governor today, what would you say are our biggest problems, and what would you do about them?
Judge Patterson: One is the drug problem. Alabama has a serious drug problem and it's getting worse. There are many things that we can do about it that we are not doing. I would like to put my ideas into operation. The other thing is hazardous waste. I am a great environmentalist, and I can't conceive that people would wreck the environment for future generations. I think we need to do something about this hazardous waste coming into Alabama, even if it's necessary to get out into the street and demonstrate. I would be willing to do this myself. I would hate to be governor of Alabama during any period of its
history that we sold out the future generations.
Chris: How do you feel about criminals with long sentences being let out of jail early?
Judge Patterson: I'm sort of opposed to that. Our punishment system is not working. It's not deterring people from committing crimes. The more we put away for long terms, the more commit crimes. We're having to build a new prison in Alabama each year. The prison population is increasing in Alabama. We do not have a solution to this problem.