Patterson's murder changed politics
Bob Ingram, Alabama Scene
MONTGOMERY–We have gone through what might be called an "anniversary season" in recent weeks–May 17 was the 50th anniversary of the Brown vs. Board of Education decision…June 6 was the 60th anniversary of D-Day…and yes, note has been made in recent days of the 10th anniversary of the two murders in which a jury found O. J. Simpson not guilty.
But this week marks the 50th anniversary of a story far closer to me and a story which impacted more on the political direction of this state than can be imagined.
On June 18, 1954, the attorney general-nominee of Alabama, Albert Patterson, was shot to death in an alleyway outside his office in Phenix City. It was without a doubt the biggest crime story of the past half-century, perhaps…certainly in media coverage…the biggest crime story in state history.
Not only did Patterson's murder touch off an incredible chain of events in what was then called "Sin City," but it had enormous impact on the political landscape of this state and the political direction taken by this state.
In one of those strange coincidences which we have all experienced, I had been in Phenix City all week leading up to the murder of Patterson. I was covering an election contest in which a defeated candidate for a seat in the House of Representative–V. Cecil Curtis–was contesting a race for the State House of Representatives in which incumbent Rep. Jabe Brassel had been declared the winner
On Tuesday of that week, Albert Patterson had come by the courthouse and visited with the three members of the State Democratic Executive Committee who were conducting the contest and I visited briefly with him. I knew Patterson only casually.
On Friday morning…the day of the assassination…I had driven back to Montgomery, turned in my stories for the weekend, then my wife and I headed for our hometown of Centre for a visit with our families.
I will never forget driving into the front yard of my wife's home late that night. Her father was standing on the front porch and he ran to the car to tell me that Albert Patterson had been murdered and the Advertiser wanted me to return immediately to Montgomery and go back to Phenix City the following morning to cover the story.
I spent a good part of the summer and fall in Phenix City. It was a memorable experience, climaxed with the indictment and arrest of three men for the murder: Atty. Gen. Si Garrett, Circuit Solicitor Arch Ferrell (they are now called District Attorneys) and Chief Deputy Sheriff Albert Fuller.
Only Fuller was convicted for the crime. He was given a life sentence. Ferrell was acquitted and Garrett never stood trial after being declared mentally incompetent.
The death of Patterson had enormous impact on the political landscape in this state. His son, John, stepped forward and qualified to run in a special election for the vacant AG nomination. Nobody dared to oppose him.
Four years later, Patterson announced his candidacy for governor.
Already running and a favorite to win was a young circuit judge from Barbour County…George C. Wallace.
At that time Wallace was very moderate on the issue of race. A protege of Gov. Big Jim Folsom, in the campaign he actually criticized Patterson for his strong stand on segregation.
Patterson won and after the election Wallace made a vow that never again would he take the same stand on segregation. He is quoted as saying he would never be "out-segged" again.
If Albert Patterson had not been killed and his son had not taken his place, in all probability Wallace would have been elected governor in 1958, and that was a far different Wallace than the defiant, fire-breathing, stand-in-the-school house-door Wallace who was elected in 1962.
John Patterson, after one term as governor, made a futile race for a second term in 1966, but was one of many who were overwhelmed by Lurleen Wallace.
On the anniversary of his father's tragic death, Patterson…now 82 but still in excellent health… and the surviving members of his cabinet and supporters will get together for a sad-happy reunion at the Capitol City Club in Montgomery.