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Nobody But the People

By: Warren Trest
Reviewed by: David T. Morgan
NewSouth Books, 2008
$32.50, Hardcover

This biography of John Patterson by Warren Trest offers inside stories of dramatic and monumental events in the history of Alabama. The author tells Patterson’s story in a highly readable, narrative style. Scholars looking for exhaustive documentation and thoroughgoing analysis will not find it here. However, the intelligent general reader will discover a well told story about an interesting man.

John Patterson was vitally involved in several dramatic events in Alabama’s history. First, as the state’s attorney general, he cleaned up Phenix City, a town where crime had long run rampant. This Patterson did in 1954-1958 after his father, Albert Patterson, a candidate for attorney general, was murdered near his Phenix City law office. Assuming his father’s mantle, Patterson ran in his place and won election. He then carried out the elder Patterson’s plan to rid Phenix City of corruption and vice.

In 1958 Patterson successfully ran for governor and was soon confronted with civil rights protests and violence. To his discredit, he shamelessly stood with the state’s white supremacists to prevent integration.

After four stormy years as governor, Patterson returned to the practice of law. Eventually appointed to the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals, he served on the bench with distinction for two decades. In 2004 he served as principal judge on a special court to rule on former Chief Justice Roy Moore’s contention that Moore’s removal from office by his fellow justices on the Alabama Supreme Court was unconstitutional. The special court ruled against Moore unanimously.

Unfortunately, Trest is too much of an apologist for Patterson. This reviewer concedes that, generally speaking, Patterson is an honorable man. Even so, he proved in racial matters to be shaky on leadership. George Wallace justifiably contended that Patterson “outnigguhed” him in the 1958 Democratic gubernatorial primary. Trest excuses Patterson, asserting that he only followed the people’s wishes. To his credit, Patterson eventually admitted that he had done wrong and apologized.

In spite of his infrequent use of dates (creating an unclear chronology at times) and his too gentle handling of Patterson, Trest’s book is well worth reading. His focus is on the subject’s political career, but the other significant aspects of Patterson’s life are treated, too.

David T. Morgan is a retired history professor from the University of Montevallo and is author of a number of books and articles.

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