By Justin Panson
History routinely swallows up stories—things not widely known in the first place that are slowly and completely lost from the collective memory. I stumbled on one of these recently, or rather confirmed to be true a story I had heard over 15 years ago, about a guy from Sacramento named Edgar J. "Pat" Patterson. This story is about a man who, from his seemingly small role in life, helped to shape the arc of twentieth-century American history. It’s also a story about how a towering figure in the U.S. judicial world did one of the rare things in public life, changed his mind.
Let me back up from these grand statements for a minute and start from the beginning. My wife Megan and I bought our first home in 1995, over on 41st Street just north of H in East Sacramento. It was a single story place with three bedrooms, only a block from where we live today. When we moved in, we met all the neighbors, most of whom had lived on the block since the 1940s and 50s. There was Agnes, and Marge and Rose and our next door neighbor Vera, an ancient woman who lived in a tiny ramshackle place and cleaned houses for a living. These older folk welcomed the youthful energy we brought. As we met the neighbors, we noticed many were African American. This was unusual for East Sac, a mostly white, affluent part of town. We asked about this, and the neighbors told us that our block was the only place where they were permitted to buy a house back in the days of red lining, the now illegal practice by realtors and bankers of prohibiting blacks from buying homes in certain areas. So the older folks on the block embraced us and we all threw several block parties together. It was a great block.
It was at the first of these block parties where I got the chance to talk with Pat Patterson. I had met him briefly and seen him and his wife Marge out on the street. But here he was, a frail, elderly man sitting in a lawn chair out on his front yard amid all the chaos of the party. So I sat with him and was struck by his beaming smile and bright eyes and big gentle spirit. You could immediately tell when you met him that there was something special about him. He was the sweetest guy, with a sort of slow deliberate way of speaking and a very easy manner. Although he was in his eighties, you could tell he had been an athlete by the way he carried his lanky frame. I wanted to talk with Pat because I had heard from some of the other neighbors that he had been in the Governor’s security detail down at the State Capitol way back in the day. I had also heard that he had been a sprinter in the 1930s and had run against Jesse Owens. In talking with Pat I never got a real elaboration on the track and field story, but he did confirm he had been the driver for Governor Earl Warren during his three terms from 1942-1953. He matter-of-factly shared a few details of that experience. At the time I was probably more taken with his proximity to historical celebrity than anything. After that, I heard more stories from the neighbors about how Pat and Earl Warren were pretty close and that they would periodically pull up to Pat’s house in the Governor’s Cadillac with Warren in the backseat. But Meg and I had thrown ourselves into remodeling our house and were living the pre-kids, hyper-social life, so I never really followed up on these intriguing fragments from Pat’s story. We did go to dinner at their house once, but I didn't bring up the Governor stuff. They were such decent and kind people, Pat and Marge. Marge was smart and gracious. She had gone to Temple University and was retired from her job with the State of California. Being in their home, filled with old people type knick-knacks, was a little formal—the kind of situation that was out of the ordinary for us. We didn't really know them so well and there was such a big age difference. Meg and I remember the very traditional way the evening went down. Pat and I sat in their family room while the women prepared dinner. I remember it being a very nice night.
We moved off the block in 2000 and time went on. I always had the notion, maybe it was even mentioned on the block, that Pat had a fair share of Warren’s ear. I had even heard that Pat helped change Warren’s mind on the race question in the 1940s. But that's such a big statement, I think I chalked it up to exaggeration by the neighbors, who were clearly proud of this person of some importance living on their block. At the time, I did recognize that behind his gentle and modest manner Pat had a quick, inquisitive nature and a playfulness. You knew he was not afraid to express himself and to mix it up a bit. So this story was buried way in the back of my mind, and the years go on and we lose touch with the people on that block. We were raising three kids, hanging out with school families. I was starting my design business and Meg was still working at IBM. At one point we heard that Pat had passed away. And then Marge. We did not go to the funerals.
And then a few months ago something possessed me to go searching online for Pat Patterson. Probably a combination of the ubiquity of Google and the fondness that a 47-year-old guy increasingly feels for things from the past—the need to reach back and connect to fragments of your former selves. I knew that after the Governor’s security job Pat ended up teaching criminal justice part time at Sacramento State. So I'm checking out that lead and other search terms. And some things come up, including a few mentions in Warren biographies. And then I find a UC Berkeley Bancroft Library archive that contained a long interview of Pat and others from the 1970s. And this is really a stunning document, containing all the stuff that the man’s modesty prevented him from sharing.
It turns out not only were Pat and Warren close, but they shared a deep relationship both personal and intellectual. Pat was the Governor’s confidant and the person who controlled access to him. Warren often asked what Pat thought about issues of the day and his opinion of the dignitaries and politicians who called on the governor. When Governor Warren needed to think and talk, he would have Pat drive him out into the Sierra foothills for hours, just the two of them. According to Pat, most of the time they didn’t know where they were driving, just driving and talking. In his early career, Warren had been a conservative, a law-and-order politician in California. As Attorney General he interned the Japanese during WWII. So during their private talks, Pat, in his good-natured way, spoke about the race question, repeatedly exposing Warren to the inherent rightness of racial equality, and sharing stories about the poor southern blacks Pat had known back in the New Orleans of his youth. Pat conveyed to Warren how it felt to be excluded from things. This was a perspective Warren simply hadn’t been exposed to.
Ed Cray’s biography of Warren contains this passage:
“One day, sitting under a tree in the mountains, Patterson mused, ‘You know, you and I, we would not be here if you were black.’
‘What do you mean, Warren asked.’
‘Your life would have been different. You never would have been governor. You never would have been attorney general. Your whole life would have been different.’
The black chauffeur and nominal bodyguard told him of black college graduates working on garbage trucks or as waitresses because there were no other jobs open to them; of white-only hotels; of how little had changed from Patterson’s boyhood in New Orleans.
‘We discussed how slow the country was in getting rid of discrimination. I told him that when I was a little boy I had to pass by a white school to get to the black school, and I knew I would have to fight or run....’”
In the Berkeley interview, Pat said, “I think from his Brown decision that was handed down, one part of his decision almost quoted the ideas that he and I used to talk about on feelings. Some of the things that we would sit down and stop to talk about, I could see it in his decision and some of his writings, things that he picked up as he was asking questions about how the black man felt, how the black kid felt.”
I have tried to reconstruct in my imagination what those conversations in the Governor’s car must have been like, Pat appealing to Warren’s reason and his sense of humanity. Some kind of true life Driving Miss Daisy tale, with the fate of millions of African Americans hanging in the eventual balance.
In the UC Berkeley interview, Pat recalls how close he was with the Warren family, how in the course of chauffeuring the five children around Pat became a de facto parent to the kids. He was a part of their family. Earl and Nina Warren saw potential in the young man and encouraged him to further his education and to study during the frequent idle periods between driving assignments. It was common to see Pat pouring over books while sitting in his little kiosk at the foot of the kitchen stairway in the Governor’s Mansion. Warren was Attorney General when he first met Pat. The story has it that as a young security officer Pat was reading at a table with the Bible and the civil codes both open in front of him. Warren had stopped and asked him what he was doing, and Pat replied, “Trying to reconcile God and Law.” That witty remark was the start of their friendship. When Warren won the Governorship he requested Pat to be his driver and bodyguard.
In 1953, President Eisenhower selected Warren to be Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. Pat did not move with the family to Washington, but visited the Warrens there and remained lifelong friends with them. Eisenhower would later regret selecting Warren, saying it was the “the biggest damned-fool mistake I ever made.” This is because Warren’s thinking on race and a whole spectrum of political philosophy changed significantly from what the centrist President had expected. The Warren Court, and especially four landmark decisions it handed down, transformed our country and comprised the foundation of modern American liberal thought. The Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954 was the most famous of these. It struck down segregation in public schools and later was expanded upon to strike down racial classification in many areas. The Brown decision paved the way for major reforms of the 1960s, including the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. We look back on the heady days of the civil rights movement and take for granted that it was the right course for the nation. And we rightly praise the moral magnitude of the Warren Court. But it is important to remember that there were many people who violently opposed changes to the status quo. Among the forces opposing equality, there was considerable hatred for Earl Warren. The ‘Impeach Warren’ billboards and the wanted posters are a chilling testament to a group of people who wound up on the wrong side of history.
In my research I learned that Pat became a respected figure in California criminal justice circles, working as a parole officer and a prison psychotherapist. In the criminal justice classes he taught at Sac State, he tried to humanize law enforcement. He wrote about the importance of attempting to understand other people, and the ripple effect throughout society this positive attitude would have as his students went out into the workforce. He worked with cops, criminals and prison guards, and believed in the ideal of rehabilitation. He and Warren had delved deeply into the ideas of prison reform long before they became popular in the 1960s. That was a different time, a far cry from our current state of prison building as a growth industry, where corrupt economic and judicial cycles churn big money for private players. To this day, there is a small scholarship endowed in Pat’s name at Sacramento State University.
My efforts to talk with people who knew Pat haven’t amounted to much. The decades have stacked up, and the people