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Patterson for Alabama: The Life and Career of John Patterson

By: Gene L. Howard
Reviewed by: Ruth Beaumont Cook
The University of Alabama Press, 2008
$29.95, Hardcover

After working with his material for two decades, Gene L. Howard has written an extremely readable biography of John Patterson, governor of Alabama from 1959 to 1963. The beginning chapters bring to life Patterson’s father’s crusade to clean up rampant corruption in Phenix City in the early 1950s. It was the mob-related murder of Albert Patterson on June 18, 1953, that led his son John reluctantly into a political career he would never otherwise have pursued.

After the blatant assassination of the Democratic nominee for state attorney general, John Patterson responded to a mandate from outraged Alabama citizens and assumed his father’s candidacy. He won the election and, at thirty-three, became the youngest attorney general in Alabama history.

Howard leads the reader through the younger Patterson’s career, beginning with the partially successful prosecution of his father’s killers. He describes Patterson’s pursuit of loan sharks who preyed on the poor and confrontations with the civil rights movement that took on steam just as Patterson emerged on the state political scene.

During a period when Republican candidates were not serious contenders in Alabama, thirty-seven-year-old Patterson defeated George Wallace in the 1958 Democratic primary and assured his own election that fall as the youngest governor in state history. Anecdotes based on interviews with Patterson himself as well as members of his family and his administration offer readers excellent insight into the politics of that era.

Howard portrays Patterson as a man who balanced achievement and weakness, both in public and private life. Like George Wallace, Patterson made a conscious decision to defend the beliefs of white constituents although he knew integration would soon be enforced. One of the most interesting dramas in the book is Patterson’s complicated relationship with John F. Kennedy—a relationship that began with eager support on Patterson’s part and ended with deliberate distancing on Kennedy’s part as Alabama’s civil rights struggles became national news.

In the “Preface and Acknowledgements,” Howard notes his intention to tell a story rather than create an analytical study. He succeeds in this effort; however, he includes detailed endnotes and a comprehensive index for documentation.

The book concludes by bringing Patterson’s career up to date with his appointment as chief justice for a special Alabama supreme court in 2005. The court convened to hear Roy Moore’s appeal after the controversy over his placement of a Ten Commandments monument in the Alabama Judicial Building. Patterson’s colleagues on the special court honored him with a resolution of appreciation for once again serving Alabama under “extraordinary circumstances.”  Sept 2008

Ruth Beaumont Cook, who lives in Birmingham, is the author of North Across the River and Guests Behind the Barbed Wire.

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