VOL. 126 | NO. 125 | Tuesday, June 28, 2011
Patterson’s Legacy In Local Politics Looms Large
By Bill Dries
J.O. Patterson Jr. was the city’s first African-American mayor. That’s the lead biographical item from any comprehensive history of Memphis political history to come.
His 20-day appointed tenure as interim mayor following the 1982 resignation of Wyeth Chandler, however, was a footnote to a 20-year career on the Memphis City Council that began when the city switched to the mayor-council form of government in 1968.
Patterson died Saturday, June 25 at the age of 76.
Patterson was on the very first City Council, elected in 1967 and taking office less than two months before sanitation workers went on strike and four months before Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis.
Over the next 20 years, Patterson made the transition from part of the city’s first generation of black office holders to an important but solitary political figure in an age of developing political coalitions as black leaders prepared for majority population status.
Patterson became mayor in 1982 because he was council chairman at the time and thus next in the line of succession in the city charter. The charter, which since has been changed, set a time limit on the council chairman’s time in the office before the mayor’s office passed to the city’s chief administrative officer.
Patterson’s pursuit of the mayor’s office and other offices became both a sign of the times and one of several cases cited in the landmark federal court case that ended the city’s runoff provision.
When a state court ruling and order forced an election to fill the less than a year left in Chandler’s term of office in 1982, Patterson was among those in the mayor’s race.
And he finished at the top of the nine-candidate field with County Clerk Dick Hackett second. Because Patterson didn’t get more than 50 percent of the vote or a majority, he and Hackett advanced to a runoff where Hackett won easily.
It was Patterson’s loss in the runoff that attorneys in the 1991 federal court hearing challenging the runoff provision used to make the case that the runoff was intended to make it impossible for a black candidate to ever claim citywide office. U.S. District Court Judge Jerome Turner agreed.
The grandson of Bishop Charles Mason, the founder of the Memphis-based Church of God In Christ and the son of Bishop J.O. Patterson Sr., the first leader of the Pentecostal denomination after Mason’s death, Patterson Jr. was also an attorney.
After earning his law degree at DePaul University in Chicago, he opened a law practice in Memphis and began a pursuit of political office. The pursuit mirrored the changing politics of the city and the rise of black political leaders to elected office.
In 1966, Patterson was elected to the Tennessee Legislature in the same election cycle that saw the election of several black citizens to the Shelby County delegation to Nashville.
The next year he won election to the council and kept the legislative seat. Patterson brought an attorney’s sense of order and a deep resonant voice from the pulpit to the council.
He rarely attended the council’s executive session, which until the enactment of the state open meetings law in the mid-1970s was a closed session where reporters were allowed but where any elected official could declare his or her comments off the record.
Patterson said he didn’t attend because the meetings weren’t open. A spotty attendance record at council sessions resulted from that as well as his service in Nashville for four to five months a year.
In 1972, Patterson ran unsuccessfully for Congress from what was then the 8th congressional district. He was the first black major party candidate for Congress in the city since Reconstruction when Ed Shaw ran as a Republican for Congress.
Two years later, state Rep. Harold Ford Sr. won the Democratic congressional primary and upset Republican incumbent Dan Kuykendall, becoming the state’s first black congressman since Reconstruction.
The 1974 election victory of Ford and his two brothers running for the state legislature was a new day in Memphis politics.
Patterson chose not to seek re-election to the council in the 1987 city elections. He would have faced a lively challenge from Rickey Peete who was representing the same district on the Memphis City Schools board. Peete won the seat and Patterson effectively retired from politics turning his full attention to the church.
Some supporters, years later, sought to have Patterson’s portrait included in the Hall of Mayors at City Hall. Mayor Willie Herenton’s position was that the gallery didn’t include the portraits of those who had served on an interim basis.
Patterson’s last political appearance was in 2009 as Herenton left office and another council chairman, Myron Lowery, who as a reporter had covered Patterson, became interim mayor.