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Bishop J.O. Patterson Jr.: "Trying to help somebody"

Public servant, church bishop, attorney, father, humanitarian and a man who will always be remembered as the first African-American Mayor in Memphis. Bishop J.O. Patterson Jr is all of this and more. by Myron Lowery
Memphis City Councilman

“A couple of years ago, I sat down with Bishop J.O. Patterson Jr. and wrote a synopsis of his life, which was published in a book on well- known Memphians. There are many facts here that you may not have yet heard. Read and enjoy the life story a great man.”
Myron Lowery

Public servant, church bishop, attorney, father, humanitarian and a man who will always be remembered as the first African-American Mayor in Memphis. Bishop J.O. Patterson Jr is all of this and more, serving this community as a Tennessee State Representative, State Senator, and City Councilman while carrying a legacy of spiritual values that is intertwined in every action, every day of his life. He serves as a church minister and as Chairman of the General Assembly, the lawmaking body of the International Church of God in Christ.

Born, May 28, 1935, in John Gaston Hospital, James Oglethorpe Patterson Jr. is the grandson of Senior Bishop C.H. Mason the founding father of the Church of God in Christ. His father, Bishop J.O. Patterson Sr. and mother Deborah Mason Patterson were also leaders in the Church. J.O. Jr had a sister, Janet Laverne who was 12 years younger.

Like any youngster, his earliest memories are playing games like marbles and riding skateboards. He grew up in South Memphis in a home on the corner of Mississippi and Edith. “The house is no longer there now; there is a vacant lot at that corner. It was Bishop Mason’s house; a two story white frame house with about six bedrooms in it. That was the family home and my mother and father were living with Bishop Mason at that time.”  His grandmother was deceased.  

J.O.’s father worked as a clothes presser at a cleaning shop on Main Street, between Linden and Beale in downtown Memphis. J.O. Senior’s occupation was listed as presser on his son’s birth certificate. His mother was a housewife who also helped Dad with his businesses.  Shortly after J.O. Jr. was born his father decided to go into business for himself and he operated an old coal and wood yard located at the corner of Wellington Street and Williams Avenue: a fenced in vacant lot.  J.O. Jr. remembers it well.  “Dad and Mother sold wood and coal. I remember when I was a little kid, Dad had an old truck that we used for delivery of wood and coal.  The truck also powered the saw used to cut wood. We’d jack up the rear end of the truck, connect a large belt from the rear wheel of the truck to the saw,  start the motor and we had a power saw.  As a kid, that was always an amazing experience for me.  I enjoyed being at the coal yard and riding in the old delivery truck.

In 1939 my father opened a Funeral Home on Chelsea Avenue.  Later he moved the business to 2204 Chelsea Avenue, a larger two story facility.  We lived on the second floor of the funeral home building where my sister Janet  was born.”

J.O. remembers his grandfather, Bishop Mason as a leader who was always on the road and seldom at home.  “He traveled all over the United States visiting various jurisdictions in the church and preaching. He was just on the road all the time.  There were no airplanes, there were just trains and buses and his travel was usually on the railroad. So he was gone most of the time, I would say a good 75% of the time at least, Poppa was preaching and traveling.”

J.O. met his first wife Merle Anderson (now deceased) in Nashville, where they both attended Fisk University.  They were married in the summer before their senior year. Together they had two children, Dr. James O., III, born in 1958 and Aaron Lamont, born in 1964. J.O. later married Rose Kelly during his first year in the Tennessee State Legislature. Together they also had two children, Jennifer Rose, born in 1974and Elder Charles H.M. Patterson, born in 1976.  Rose passed away in 2005 and J.O. currently has seven grandchildren

Growing up in a deeply rooted spiritual family you would think that J.O. Jr. would always plan to enter the ministry, but that was not the case. Neither his father nor grandfather exerted any pressure on him, if fact they never discussed it.  J. O. Jr. said “My desire to go into the ministry came as a result of my growing up and developing a deeper relationship with God.

Early on, he believes he was called to the ministry, but he resisted the call.  In 1958 he entered Temple University’s Seminary in Philadelphia, but he soon withdrew. J. O. said his “mind and spirit was not ready to yield to the call of God.”  So he entered DePaul University L aw School in Chicago.

After graduating, he began practicing law in Memphis. One night he felt the call to the ministry deeper than ever before. He describes it as a shocking experience. “I was up working on some material and started thinking about the ministry; I ended up crying and boohooing.

Rose was there in the house in the upstairs bedroom asleep. I went to her just crying and woke her up. I said, “baby I just can’t hold out any longer; I’ve got to give in and do what God wants me to do. I could hear God talking to me and I realized that I had to respond to his call. As I stood there crying, Rose sat there in bed and looked at me like I was a fool. She seemed to be saying, ‘boy, let me go back to sleep.’  That was her attitude at the time. She didn’t know what was wrong with me.”

In 1977, J.O. entered Memphis Theological Seminary. He was ordained the following year and received the Masters of Arts Degree in Religion from Memphis Theological Seminary several years later. In 2007, J.O. was awarded an honorary Doctoral Degree of Ministry from the Interdenominational Theological Center and Charles H. Mason Theological Seminary in Atlanta.

J.O.’s political career is one to be admired. He was elected to the Tennessee House of Representatives in the fall in 1966 and took office in 1967.  After serving for two years in the House, he ran for the State Senate where he was first elected to a two year term and then a four year term.  He was elected as a member of the Memphis City Council where he served for 5 terms from 1968 to 1988. His 20 years remains as the record for the longest serving African-American on the Council.

J.O. admits that he started in politics in an effort to help build his law practice. “At that time, lawyers were not permitted to advertise, unlike what's going on now.  There were no law firms that a black lawyer could join. We were all single practitioners, there were no black law firms and no white law firms were taking blacks as partners. So black lawyers had to get out there and hustle individually and try to build a practice. And here I am a young fellow with a law degree and nobody to practice with and I figured politics was a good way for me to advertise the fact that I was a lawyer. I could run all over town hollering, I'm a lawyer as one of my qualifications for running for office. That was my entry into politics.”

J.O. said he is extremely proud of his service on the City Council “honorably representing the black community. Fred David, Rev. James Netters and I made a point of trying to see that services to the black community were on par with services in the white community. Some interesting things happened then, especially during the early days with the sanitation strike and Dr. King’s death occurred soon after we took office in ’68.
It had a tremendous impact on our new government. I became known as the representative of the black employees seeking union recognition. I went to all the meetings, I knew most of them and they were my friends. So I would meet with the employees and civil rights groups in the afternoons and evenings and I’d meet with the City Council in the mornings and try to argue the case of the black sanitation workers with the Council.

J.O. remembers that all three blacks on the Council “had different approaches to the problem and different ways in how we ought to approach the white members of the council, and the white mayor. Mine was more of a fighting spirit while Fred was more conservative in his approach.  Reverend Netters had more of a ‘middle of the road’ approach. Netters also attended all the public meetings of the civil rights groups that they had during that time. He and his wife were always there. They unfortunately took a lot of abuse from the public that was uncalled for and unjustified.  They did not look with favor on Netters’ approach and certainly not Fred’s approach.

I was a young man in the limelight and the one that everybody cheered on. I don’t know whether it was always justified or not but nevertheless, it did work out. Mayor Henry Loeb really frustrated me and the fact that the white members of the council did not want to publicly oppose the Mayor. I know that there were some Council members that were not in accordance with his position and they were trying to talk to the Mayor and get him to come around, but they were not willing to publicly oppose him.  Loeb just was not willing to recognize, the union.  And the sanitation employees were just as determined, that above all things, that if they didn’t get anything else, they wanted union recognition and they were willing, at that time, to settle for just a 5 cent increase in pay.  Five cents and recognition would’ve ended the strike. Dr. King wouldn’t have been in Memphis, and he would not have been killed in Memphis; 5 cents; just 5 cents and union recognition would have changed the course of history.”

While on the Council, J.O. rarely attended the executive session. He thought many of the members would use that time to grandstand and he didn’t want any part of that. But he realized that he wanted to serve as Chairman and began attending those sessions. And as fate would have it, J.O was elected as Chairman the year that Mayor Wyeth Chandler decided to resign to become a judge.  J.O. took the oath of office in the Council Chambers the same day that Chandler resigned.

He remembers some animosity from a few members particularly Bob James who was overheard telling other members he would never vote to approve any of J.O.’s appointments. But J.O. won him over after submitting an integrated list of board appointments including Jack Sammons to the Coliseum Board.

While J.O. only served for 20 days as Mayor he wants to be remembered for doing everything he could to help all Memphians throughout his career.  “I guess in all the time that I served; most of my thoughts were on what I could do for everyday common people. I never had in mind to try to build myself with personal wealth and status. I guess I was somewhat like my grandfather. For instance, Bishop Mason during those days probably had millions of dollars that went through his hands.  He’d get it and give it and pass it on to pastors, helping them build churches and growing their congregations.   I guess some of that rubbed off on me. I could’ve had a lot more than I had if I had been selfish. I don’t think I was ever selfish about any of my approaches. I am very proud of the service that I provided to the citizens of Memphis. I would really like to be remembered as always trying to help somebody.”

As he looks back over his life, J.O. says he only has one regret;
“The only real regret I have is that I did not go into the ministry when I was first called. I wasted a lot of years. That's my only real regret, not answering the first call to ministry; who knows where I would’ve been, I probably would not have been in public life or in elected office.  My father was elected Presiding Bishop of the church, the same year that I was elected to the council.
So we were coming along together at the same time.

I observed during my father’s leadership, continual strife between the chairmanship of the General Assembly and the administrative part of the church and the General Board. There was always quarreling and on-going disputes.  Consequently, from my perspective, once I became chairman, I tried to make a point of seeing that there was peace existing between all branches of the church and I think I was extremely successful with that. As a result, there is no bickering; no fighting between the General Assembly and the Presiding Bishop, nothing but love and respect between us. We get along very well.  It is my desire to always maintain peace and harmony within the church.”

Today, Bishop J.O. Patterson Jr. continues to lead the 2,500 member, Pentecostal Temple of the Church of God in Christ at the corner of Linden and Danny Thomas.

On May 16, 2008, he began a new chapter in his life when he married Judith Kerr Watkins in a small ceremony with family members and friends at his home on Elvis Presley Boulevard.

The legacy of J.O. Patterson Jr. continues.

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