Warning: This story contains offensive language. It was written by Montgomery Advertiser reporter Brian Lyman, who graciously shared it with the ALMD.
A half-century after he condemned the Freedom Riders, former Alabama Gov. John Patterson said he admired them.
“It meant so much to the state of Alabama that they came here and did what they did, under grave, adverse circumstances,” he said in the courtroom in the Frank M. Johnson Federal Courthouse Complex on May 20, 2011. “It took a lot of nerve and guts to do what they did, and they deserve a lot of credit for it.”
On Patterson’s left stood U.S. Rep. John Lewis, who had sat down with other veterans of the Freedom Rides for a lunch with the former governor. The congressman said the meeting “says something about the distance that we have come and the progress we have made in the nation.”
Ceremonies honoring Lewis, who died on July 17 at age 80, have stressed his courage and the transformative power of the civil rights movement. Stories of repentant white segregationists like Patterson have become a major part of southern political lore. Former Alabama Gov. George Wallace sought forgiveness from Lewis and other Black leaders in the last decades of his life. Patterson disowned some of his prior stands defending segregation.
And on the surface, at least, the 2011 meeting between Lewis, Patterson, and the Freedom Riders appeared to be a landmark in the white South’s long reckoning with the sins of its past.
But interviews with attendees and footage from the closed-door meeting — recently made available to the Advertiser by the Alabama Historical Commission — present a far more complicated picture, one that shows how much distance remains between the movement's goals and present realities.
Patterson and the Freedom Riders spoke to each other with respect. The governor expressed his admiration for the group and some regrets for previous actions. The Freedom Riders got to ask Patterson about his decisions before and after the Freedom Rides.
But Patterson often deflected or talked around those questions. Calls for action were met with awkward or uncertain responses.
The 2011 meeting between John Lewis, Patterson and the Freedom Riders suggests the major challenges the nation faces in uprooting the poisonous tendrils of white supremacy. It also shows the difficulties in reaching — and even in defining — reconciliation, especially when the human toll of past oppression goes unacknowledged.
“I didn’t want to go to the meeting,” said Kwame Lillard, a Freedom Rider who was present. “I refused to take a picture with him. I wanted him to do more than have a make-believe apology. A make-believe reconciliation.”
Patterson’s time as governor gets obscured by the long shadow of Wallace, who knew better than his contemporaries how to evoke feelings of siege and self-pity in his white supporters. But as attorney general and governor, Patterson was as much an opponent of the civil rights movement as Wallace, and arguably a more effective one.
In 1956, during the Montgomery Bus Boycott, then-Attorney General Patterson secured an injunction against the NAACP, barring them from organizing or operating in Alabama. The action led to a years-long court fight that twice went to the U.S. Supreme Court. The NAACP prevailed, but the battle made the group’s Alabama chapter, once one of the largest in the South, moribund in the state during a key period of the civil rights movement. He began his 1958 gubernatorial campaign declaring “there will be no mixing of the races while I am in office," a campaign where a letter that went out over signature called Robert Shelton, a leader of a Ku Klux Klan chapter in Alabama, "our mutual friend."
As governor, Patterson embraced a trumped-up prosecution of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. on tax charges. When Alabama State University students organized a sit-in to protest segregation in 1960, Patterson forced the ASU President H. Councill Trenholm to expel nine of the students and place the rest on probation. Later, Patterson ordered Trenholm to fire ASU faculty allied with King. (ASU was under the direct authority of the Alabama State Board of Education at the time; it did not have an independent Board of Trustees until 1975.)
This was the man who led the state as the Freedom Riders entered Alabama in the spring of 1961. The activists wanted to pressure the federal government to enforce court decisions outlawing segregation in interstate travel. Most Southern governments refused to abide by them.
“We integrated Greyhound and Trailways in Nashville,” said Earnest ‘Rip’ Patton, a Freedom Rider, in a recent interview. “Once you get to Birmingham, they’re talking about segregation.”
U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson was a 14-year-old living in Tuskegee during these events. He knew the humiliations of segregation first hand. Like many Black families, Thompson’s family relied on the Green Book to ensure they could find adequate accommodations when they traveled.
“So if you went from (Montgomery) to say Tennessee and you stopped in Birmingham, you stopped at the home of a friend,” he said. “If we didn’t have a friend, we called a friend who knew someone else you could stay with. Segregated transportation was for real.”
Once, when a gas station refused to allow Thompson and his brother to use the restroom, his mother told the attendants to pull the gas hose out of the tank.
“I remember sitting on buses and sitting on the back of a bus and being humiliated,” he said. “It was horrible. It was devastating. It was demeaning. It was a horrible way to grow up.”
In later years, Thompson avoided occasions where he could have shaken George Wallace’s hand. “That’s how strong I felt,” he said.
The Freedom Riders encountered violence in South Carolina, but the attacks picked up force once they crossed the Alabama state line. In Anniston, a white mob attacked and burned one of their buses. Members of the mob tried to hold the doors closed as the fires broke out.
Later, Birmingham Commissioner of Public Safety Bull Connor allowed Klansmen to beat the Freedom Riders (along with reporters and some bystanders) for 15 minutes before police interfered. Later, a mob set upon a Freedom Rider bus that arrived in Montgomery. A white member of the mob beat Lewis into unconsciousness with a wooden crate.
As governor, Patterson did not encourage the violence, but his conduct was hardly heroic. According to civil rights historian Taylor Branch, Patterson refused to guarantee the safety of Freedom Riders coming through Alabama. He snubbed the White House when it tried to contact him to discuss ways to end the violence. When he met with John Seigenthaler, a former newspaper editor and aide to U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy, Patterson bragged about the public support he was getting and said (according to Branch) “There’s nobody in the whole country that’s got the spine to stand up to the goddamned niggers except me.”
The governor only deployed the National Guard after a negotiation with Patterson and Mississippi Gov. Ross Barnett. In return, federal officials allowed local police to arrest Freedom Riders when they violated segregation laws.
Even with the protection, the dangers to the Freedom Riders were present. Patton, who rode the bus from Montgomery to Jackson, Miss., remembered a planned stop in Selma getting canceled amid rumors that Klansmen in the city planned to attack them.
“It was very somber,” he said. “This was a time to rest, a time to pray. The National Guards of both Alabama and Mississippi had fixed bayonets on their rifles, like we were going to do something.”
Once the Freedom Riders challenged the segregation laws in Mississippi, police arrested them and sent them to the state’s notorious Parchman Prison. The activists, Patton remembered, sang as prison guards removed their mattresses and put laxatives in their food.
“Even when we got stool softener in the food, we sang ‘Ain’t going to let stool softener turn us around, turn us around,’” he said.
By the 1980s, Patterson — by then a state appellate court judge — publicly renounced his earlier defenses of segregation. He said in 1988 that officials should remove the Confederate flag from the Alabama Capitol, and spoke out to preserve the Greyhound bus station in Montgomery where the white mob attacked the Freedom Riders in 1961.In a 2007 documentary, "John Patterson: In the Wake of the Assassins," Patterson said he wished he had the white mob that burned the bus in Anniston arrested.
But if he distanced himself from those stands, Patterson also seemed to distance himself from his own actions. In the documentary and a 2007 interview that year with the Montgomery Advertiser, Patterson said that he had been deceived by Birmingham and Montgomery police about their willingness to protect the Freedom Riders. But the former governor did not confront his own rhetoric at the time, or couched it in terms of political expediency.
"It became evident very quickly that the people were more interested in discussing segregation in the public schools, more than any other issue," Patterson said while discussing the 1958 governor's race in the 2007 documentary. "If you were perceived to be weak on that question, you were finished."
The idea to bring the Freedom Riders together with Patterson came from Thompson and his fellow U.S. District Judge Harold Albritton. Albritton had known Patterson for a long time, and Thompson appreciated Patterson’s call to preserve the station.
“From our end, Gov. Patterson was very much interested in doing it and wanted to do it in some form,” Albritton said in a recent interview. “Judge Thompson was working on the John Lewis end. We heard he was interested as well.”
Former Alabama Chief Justice Sue Bell Cobb, a friend of Patterson’s, said by that point the former governor, who was nearly 90, had cut back his public appearances.
“I encouraged him to do it,” she said. “He agreed if I would go with him and stay with him.”
Lewis also expressed interest in the meeting.
“He was a man who strongly believed in reconciliation and peace, and looking forward,” Thompson said. “That didn’t mean forgetting the past. I think he saw this as an opportunity, in his words, to break bread.”
The meeting between Lewis, Patterson, and the Freedom Riders took place in a law library once used by U.S. Circuit Judge Frank Johnson, author of several key civil rights decisions. Some of the Freedom Riders approached the meeting with caution.
“I went into that meeting first of all not even knowing what was going to happen,” Patton said. “I was just there for the numbers.”
Footage of the meeting shows Lewis and Patterson warmly greeting each other.
“I’ve been reading all about you,” Patterson told Lewis. “Thank you for coming here and everything you’ve done.”
Lewis thanked Patterson for his presence, saying “it sends a powerful message.”
Patterson chose to sit at the side of the table, next to Lewis, and spoke with Lewis and other Freedom Riders during the meeting.
“Everything was sort of tentative at first when we got back there,” Albritton said. “It wasn’t tentative with Gov. Patterson and John Lewis. They immediately spoke and shook hands and started talking. Things kind of warmed up with people conversing around. There was no animosity shown.”
But memories remained. Lillard, who felt drawn into a photo op for the former governor, refused to sit at the table with Patterson.
“Maybe John is more of a Christian to forgive him,” Lillard said. “I’m not. I can’t do it. Too much blood, too much terror.”
Lillard reminded the former governor of his past. He demanded that Patterson take public steps to show that he had changed. He suggested raising money for scholarships in the names of the 9 ASU students that Patterson had helped to expel. Lillard also demanded that Patterson set up an annual contribution to the NAACP – the group he tried to destroy as attorney general – in the name of Floyd Mann, the Alabama Public Safety Director who intervened to protect the Freedom Riders in Montgomery as the white mob attacked them.
“What I want you do is convince me that there’s follow-up to reconciliation,” Lillard said to Patterson. “That it be tangible and concrete.”
Patterson responded that his “political connections have waned considerably.”
“There’s not a great deal of influence I have in the state government or legislature,” he said. “But I understand what you’re talking about. Let me give some thought to that and I’ll see what I can come up with.”
Lillard asked the most pointed questions in the meeting, with most other Freedom Riders present letting him speak. Patton said that reflected training they received, ensuring everyone played their assigned role.
“We were trained to listen, and not butt in,” Patton said. “If we had a spokesperson, let that spokesperson speak. I was satisfied with just being there, as part of the number.”
Lillard said he felt his job was to hold Patterson’s “feet to the fire.”
“I just adopted a position: I’m the engineer, I’m the scientist and I’m going to take this apart and look at it,” he said. “We all have our skills, our fortes, and that was my forte.”
Other Freedom Riders engaged Patterson. Hank Thomas, a Freedom Rider who was on the bus that the white mob set on fire in Anniston, asked Patterson if he would make a public statement denouncing the violence of the spring of 1961.
“In other cases, other states, even though some of the governors were not governors at that particular time, they would make an official statement, a written statement, acknowledging that what happened 50 years ago was a travesty in terms of Alabama citizens,” Thomas said. (A message seeking comment was sent to Thomas through the Morehouse School of Medicine, where he serves as a trustee.)
Patterson said he would be “perfectly glad to do anything I possibly can if I get an opportunity to write something or express myself to somebody.”
“But you must realize I am out of Alabama politics,” he said. “Nobody in Montgomery calls me up and asks me for my advice.”
At one point, Patterson did express regret for what happened, saying “whatever I did to prolong that thing, I’m very sorry about it.” But footage of the meeting does not show Patterson explicitly engaging with his rhetoric during the Freedom Rides, or his actions toward the NAACP or ASU. At other times, Patterson seemed to distance himself from the events of May 1961, treating himself as a spectator and not a major player.
“I admire what the Freedom Riders did,” he said. “I think it took a tremendous amount of courage to do it. It got everything moving. Everything was sitting still.”
Patton and Lillard said they both noticed this distancing.
“I think that’s why Kwame pressed him a little bit,” Patton said.
In the available footage, Lewis says relatively little, but near the end he praised Patterson, and called the meeting “historic.”
“The governor has been so wonderful to take the time out to meet us, to have lunch with us,” he said. “I think he may be the only governor I know of, former governor, governor, to sit down and meet with us as a group with the Freedom Riders.”
Cobb, who attended the meeting at Patterson’s request, said Lewis’ comment was appreciated.
“He was grateful that Gov. Patterson was there,” she said. “He expressed all the things that John Lewis would say. It was a loving, caring comment.”
Beyond that, though, it’s not certain if it led to any major changes. Patterson did not appear to move from his earlier stated regrets, or confront the rhetoric he used in 1961.
“I think that a verbal apology would have been nice,” Patton said. “But then, to back it up. Back up what you’re saying. I apologize for such and such and such and such. And I am going to do what I can to make this better in Montgomery. To make that better in Montgomery, to make that better in state of Alabama.”
Lillard felt the governor had been evasive when he asked about his past. In a recent interview, Lillard pointed to South Africa, which developed a new constitution and a Truth and Reconciliation Commission after apartheid ended in that country.
“I don’t think progress is how many Confederate monuments you take down,” he said. “I don’t think it’s how many times you sing We Shall Overcome. There needs to be a fundamental analysis of what the South was, what the nation was.”
Thompson said he doesn’t believe there could be closure over such issues. But he noted that Lewis could sit down with past enemies without losing sight of present struggles.
“He was willing to do all this, but the issues for him remained pressing and looming,” he said. “If closure means everything is over and it’s OK, no. If closure means ‘this is help and a healing process so we can move forward and make sure that people’s rights are respected and vindicated,’ yes. But that’s a lifelong process.”
Contact Montgomery Advertiser reporter Brian Lyman at 334-240-0185 or via email.