The death of an elected official occasions pain: Flags are lowered, praise is delivered, and reflections occur over a towering figure dying in one’s prime. Life quickly returns to normal, and one's example is forgotten.
The 50th anniversary of the death of Attorney General Joe Turner Patterson, on April 19, 1969, provides pause to study why his life mattered to Mississippians, then and now, and is instructive for people throughout the world.
Joe Patterson was elected to replace J.P. Coleman as attorney general when Coleman vacated the position to become governor, in 1955. As strange as it seems now, those were the days of “the Solid South,” when winning the Democratic nomination meant that one had been effectively elected. My maternal grandfather said that Southerners did not vote for the other political party, in his early lifetime, because it was “the Party of the Abolition.”
Gen. Patterson was reelected three times — in 1959, 1963, and 1967 —before dying in office, 15 months into his fourth term. An accomplished ballroom dancer, Gen. Patterson and his wife Margaret danced the first dance at the inaugural balls of Governors J.P. Coleman, Ross Barnett, Paul Johnson Jr., and John Bell Williams.
Gen. Patterson’s legacy arises not from his finesse on his feet but from his fidelity to the Rule of Law. Gen. Patterson served as attorney general through the nightmare years of the Civil Rights Movement, when massive resistance was the order of the day and the Citizens Councils and Sovereignty Commission ran roughshod over anyone opposing the thought that the United States Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision was heretical.
Not so, Joe: Although a committed segregationist, Gen. Patterson appreciated the wisdom of the concept that “The ideal is the enemy of the good.” He recognized that politics is the art of the possible and that overreach accomplishes less than moderation, sensibilities lost in these tempestuous times steeped in extremism.
Gen. Patterson’s finest hour, historically, was his loneliest time, personally. Gen. Patterson understood the diabolical descent deriving from the misconception that winning by whatever means is well-warranted: If fair and equitable processes are not preserved, one will someday succumb to the unfairness and inequities which one championed.
While Gen. Patterson sought to maintain segregation and wanted to prevent James Meredith from entering Ole Miss in 1962, he recognized that the rule of law was paramount. Once the federal courts had ruled, and all appeals had been exhausted, the issues had been litigated, conclusively.
Gov. Barnett did not agree and did nothing to discourage various rabble rousers, who some say brought the country closer to an insurrection than at any time since the Civil War, from fomenting open warfare on the Ole Miss campus, on the evening of Sunday September 30, 1962.
The rebellion was put down. Federal troops occupied Oxford and Ole Miss for months thereafter. Ultimately, integration proved that Southerners are civil and peaceable and that two separate races can coexist cooperatively.
Meanwhile, the Citizens Councils mounted a vigorous campaign against Gen. Patterson in the 1963 statewide elections, fielding John McLaurin of Brandon as its candidate. The election was not even close: Joe Patterson won 58 percent of the vote in the first primary.
The gentleman long described as the dean of the Mississippi Press Corps, the late Bill Minor, told me that it was a vicious electoral campaign. Many people attribute the stresses of that time to Joe Patterson’s premature passing in a family of long-lived individuals.
Bill Patterson, Gen. Patterson’s younger son, does not know what would have become of the family, had his father found himself unemployed in January 1964. Whether a Jackson law firm would have hired him, during days demanding rigid conformity to orthodoxies, is anyone’s guess. Perhaps President Lyndon Johnson would have found a place for Gen. Joe Patterson in his administration, as his predecessor President John Kennedy had done for Congressman Frank Smith, after his Delta District was eliminated. The State of Mississippi’s Congressional Delegation was reduced from six to five after the 1960 Census, and Frank Smith’s moderation in a time of extremism made him into a target, as well. Frank Smith was appointed to the board of directors of the Tennessee Valley Authority.
An unknown triumph of Gen. Patterson’s tenure was his insistence upon empowering the Mississippi Highway Patrol to expand beyond traffic enforcement, through legislative action, following the abduction and murder of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner, in June 1964. For a number of years thereafter, Mississippi Highway Patrol law enforcement agents were trained by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, in Quantico, Va., thanks to collaboration between Joe T. Patterson and J. Edgar Hoover.
Lillian Hellman, the acclaimed New Orleans-born playwright, famously said, during what she subsequently described as being the “Scoundrel Time” of Wisconsin Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s witch hunts, “I cannot and will not cut my conscience to fit this year’s fashions.” The life and legacy of Joe Turner Patterson are significant Mississippi history because he was faithful to what mattered in the long-run rather than what was expedient and self-serving immediately. If everyone imitated Joe Patterson’s example, the shortcomings compromising contemporary American life might be minimized.
Jay Wiener is a Northsider.