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Documentary chronicles life of former governor

By Phillip Rawls
Associated Press Writer

MONTGOMERY — John Patterson had planned to be a typical county seat lawyer who would be respected in his home town but barely known beyond the county line. Then three shots changed his life.

Now his life — as attorney general, governor, appeals court judge and cattle farmer — is chronicled in a documentary that will be shown by Alabama Public Television on June 18, the 53rd anniversary of his father’s assassination.

Patterson, 85, said it’s hard to have a balanced perspective when looking at one’s own life story, but filmmaker Robert Clem did a good job with “In the Wake of Assassins.”

“It’s historically accurate, and it tells a story in an unbiased way,” Patterson said.

Patterson said people interested his life had better catch the documentary when it’s broadcast statewide at 8 p.m. on June 18 and rebroadcast at 8 p.m. on June 26 because there won’t be another documentary.

“It’s the best we’re going to be able to do with what we’ve got to work with, and we are not going to do it again,” Patterson said at a recent screening for more than 100 friends and state officials.

Patterson’s father won the Democratic nomination for attorney general in 1954 on a pledge to clean up the gambling, illegal liquor and prostitution that had earned his hometown of Phenix City the title of “Sin City.”

Albert Patterson never got to seek his goal because he was gunned down outside his law office.

John Patterson said he had never planned to follow his father into politics, but “all that changed for me in one instant when he got killed.”

Patterson became attorney general to pursue his father’s dream.

It worked. Today, an historic marker near his father’s old law office gives the only clue to Phenix City’s notorious past.

Clem, a Birmingham native who now runs a film company in upstate New York, already knew lots about Patterson from making an award-winning documentary about Patterson’s predecessor, Gov. James E. “Big Jim” Folsom, in 1997.

He decided to pursue Patterson’s story — despite the initial reluctance of the former governor — because of the Phenix City cleanup.

“It had the classic structure of a drama with bad guys and good guys, but the good guys won,” he said.

The dramatic lines in Patterson’s life got blurred after he beat George C. Wallace to become governor in 1958, and he suddenly found himself, a declared segregationist, in the middle of the civil rights movement.

As governor, Patterson said, he mistakenly expected local police to protect the Freedom Riders who set out to integrate Southern bus stations.

Instead, they got firebombed and beaten in Alabama, creating a pivotal point in the civil rights movement.

Also as governor, he agreed to a CIA — and presumably presidential — request to commit members of the Alabama Air National Guard to train Cuban exiles for the Bay of Pigs invasion in Cuba.

Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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