Born in 1921, John Malcolm Patterson was a Phenix City, Alabama, lawyer who had served in both World War II and the Korean War. When his father, the state attorney general, was murdered in 1954 after leading efforts to prosecute vice and illegal gambling, Patterson himself was elected attorney general on a reform platform. While initially applauded for his efforts to fight crime, Patterson became a leading defender of segregation, banning the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) from operating in Alabama and filing a lawsuit against participants in the Montgomery bus boycott.
In 1958, Patterson won a four-year term as governor, relying on the support of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) to defeat future Governor George Wallace and 11 other candidates. While his administration succeeded in getting several major public works projects and laws against predatory lending through the state legislature, it was primarily known for its resistance to ending racial discrimination. Patterson forced the expulsion of students who participated in sit-ins at the historically black Alabama State University and fought federal voter registration efforts. Attorney General Robert Kennedy, whom Patterson considered a political ally and friend, attempted to gain the governor's assurance that the Freedom Riders who arrived in Alabama in May 1961 would at least be protected from physical attacks by state and local police. However, Patterson quickly withdrew his troops from the highway where the buses were traveling. While claiming to have gone fishing when President Kennedy tried to contact him by phone, Patterson was actually listening in on Justice Department conversations with the help of a local telephone operator. On May 20, after the Freedom Riders and their supporters had been surrounded in a Montgomery church by an angry mob and Robert Kennedy had mobilized federal marshals, Patterson reluctantly declared martial law and dispersed the hostile crowd.
Kennedy's misplaced reliance on Patterson, a man he viewed as his pal, was based on longstanding assumptions regarding the Solid South. Since the end of the American Civil War, Southern states had associated the Republican Party with the end of slavery, efforts to redress discrimination against African Americans during Reconstruction, and economic policies favoring the industrial North. As a result, these states voted as a block for Democratic presidential candidates, and the Democratic Party generally responded by not pushing for civil rights enforcement and by nominating vice presidential candidates from Southern states to balance its national ticket. Yet the South had already proved less than solidly Democratic in 1948, when President Harry Truman's support of civil rights led South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond to run as a third-party candidate. The reliance of Democrats on Southern voters was further eroded in 1960 when John Kennedy experienced a strong anti-Catholic bias in the region.
The Alabama Constitution prohibited John Patterson from serving two successive terms, and his attempt to return to the governor's office in 1966 failed. His 1972 campaign for election as chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court was also unsuccessful, although Patterson ultimately served 14 years on the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals. In 2008, he demonstrated a change in his thinking when he publicly supported Barack Obama's presidential campaign and expressed regret for failing to "bring black citizens into the political process" during his term as governor.