During the course of the 20th century, Alabama native W.C. Patton (1910-1997) became a legendary figure. A civil rights giant long identified with the struggle for voting rights in the United States (U.S.), Patton was credited with registering over 1.5 million voters in his lifetime.
Patton’s activism began when he was a student at Alabama State College in Montgomery. He joined the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1932 remaining active as a volunteer throughout the Great Depression and World War II. His activism contributed to the local branch of NAACP being recognized as the “most militant and outstanding” branch in the country.
In 1947 Patton became the President of the Alabama State Conference of Branches of NAACP. Throughout his career, Patton directed multiple voter registration efforts for NAACP. An early campaign slogan used to encourage participation in the political process was “A Voteless People is a Hopeless People.” He was known for saying “My job was to incite people to become registered voters.” This entailed keeping the books open till midnight and going into poolrooms.
Patton also steered the organization’s efforts to overturn discriminatory voting legislation, namely the Boswell Amendment, which was passed in 1946. This Amendment required would-be voters to “…understand and explain any article of the Constitution of the United States…” Patton raised $15,000 for “Operation Suffrage” to challenge this Amendment in court. In 1949 in the case of Davis v. Schell, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Alabama declared the Boswell Amendment unconstitutional. The lawsuit, filed by the Mobile Voters’ and Veterans’ League, was part of “Operation Suffrage” headed by Patton.
The defeat of the Boswell Amendment, however, did not halt efforts to impede African-Americans from voting. In 1951 members of the Alabama Legislature passed the Bonner Amendment, which required that potential voters be deemed “of good moral character” by local boards of registrars. In 1957 the Alabama Legislature redistricted Macon County as a means to exclude all but a handful of African-American voters from city elections. In response to the redistricting NAACP filed Gomillion v. Lightfoot on which, in 1960, the U.S. Supreme Court decided that this redistricting violated the Fifteenth Amendment.
As if he foresaw the future struggle for voting rights in Alabama-including the State Government’s 1956 decision to ban the NAACP from operating-Patton organized the Alabama State Coordinating Association for Registration and Voting in 1952. Its office was on the 9th floor of Birmingham’s Masonic Temple Building; a photo of the office’s door is found above. The NAACP was not re-permitted to incorporate and operate in Alabama again till 1964.
When Patton retired from the NAACP in 1979, he shifted full time focus to his home state and city. Holding the reins of dozens of cooperating grassroots organizations, he coordinated voter registration campaigns, economic development initiatives, and community relations efforts. He worked until his passing in Birmingham in 1997.
Patton’s voting rights crusade was rooted in hope. He believed in the promise of participatory democracy. He acted with courage, undaunted by the murder of fellow activists*. He toiled to help Americans connect voting with education, housing, healthcare and economic opportunity. The struggle for voting rights continues today, but we can take hope in the story of W.C. Patton, a foot soldier for justice.
* 1951 Harry T. Moore, President of the Florida Conference of Branches of the NAACP and his wife Harriette Moore; 1956 Reverend George Lee, President of the Belzoni Mississippi Chapter of the NAACP; 1961 Herbert Lee, voter registration activist in Mississippi; 1963 Medgar Evers NAACP leader in Mississippi; 1964 Louis Allen, James Chaney, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman, voter registration activists in Mississippi; 1965 Jimmie Lee Jackson and Viola Liuzzo, voter registration activists in Alabama; and 1966 Vernon Dahmer, voter registration activist in Mississippi.