August 27, 1891
March 5, 1980
Lawyer and activist William Patterson was born in San Francisco, California. When he was young, his father left the family to become a missionary while his mother worked as a domestic to raise their children. Patterson took jobs as a sea porter, a dishwasher, and an elevator operator, among other things, to help support his family and put himself through school. In 1911 he graduated from Tamalpais High School and entered the University of California at Berkeley to study engineering. He attended on and off for several years before deciding to go to the Hastings College of Law in San Francisco, where he earned his J.D. in 1919.
While in college, Patterson became politically active, combating racism and urging African Americans not to fight in World War I, which he felt was a "white man's war." After considering going to Liberia, he instead chose to move to New York City, where he opened a law firm with two friends in 1923. In New York in the midst of the Harlem Renaissance he was exposed to left-wing ideas and met such influential black activists as Paul Robeson and W. E. B. Du Bois. During this period he actively supported the International Labor Defense protests on behalf of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, two Italian anarchists whose radical political views and status as immigrants contributed heavily to their conviction and subsequent execution in 1927 for the murder of a paymaster.
As a result of his political activity, Patterson came to the conclusion that economic exploitation and the capitalist system lay at the root of black oppression. In 1927 he joined the Communist Party, U.S.A. and went to the Soviet Union for three years to study at the University of the Toiling People of the Far East in Moscow. There he found a society he thought was free of racial, class, and religious prejudice. Patterson returned to the United States in 1930 and two years later was elected to the Central Committee of the Communist Party and ran for mayor of New York on the Communist Party ticket. From 1932 until 1946 he served as executive director of the International Labor Defense (ILD), a radical legal-action group strongly influenced by the Communist Party. As head of the ILD in the 1930s, Patterson helped coordinate the legal strategy and political protests on behalf of the Scottsboro defendants, nine young African-American men falsely accused of raping two white women. (All but the youngest were sentenced to death.)
In 1938 Patterson moved to Chicago and two years later married Louise Thompson, with whom he had three children. While there, Patterson organized Chicago's South Side and wrote for and edited various communist newspapers, including the Daily Record and the Daily Worker. From 1946 to 1956 he served as executive director of the Civil Rights Congress, an organization often aligned with the Communist Party that defended the civil rights and liberties of African Americans and radical political activists. In 1951 he and Paul Robeson presented a petition to the United Nations charging the United States with genocide by "deliberately inflicting on [African Americans] conditions of life calculated to bring about [their] physical destruction" through executions, lynchings, and systematic terrorism. In the same year he edited a book, We Charge Genocide: The Crime of Government Against the Negro People. Because of his involvement in the Civil Rights Congress and the Communist Party, Patterson was called before the House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1950 and found in contempt four years later for refusing to answer questions. He spent three months in prison before the decision was reversed upon appeal.
Patterson's political activity declined in the later years of his life, but he still firmly believed in a society free of racism and poverty. In 1971 he published his autobiography, The Man Who Cried Genocide, and in 1978 he was awarded the Paul Robeson Memorial Medal by the Academy of Arts in East Germany. Although he died in 1980 after a prolonged illness, a foundation that bears his name carries on his commitment to social justice by awarding grants to supporters of the "people's struggle."
Horne, Gerald. Communist Front? The Civil Rights Congress, 1946–56. Rutherford, N.J: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press; London and Cranbury, N.J.: Associated University Presses, 1988.
Patterson, William. The Man Who Cried Genocide: An Autobiography. New York: International Publishers, 1971.
premilla nadasen (1996)