Bishop J.O. Patterson Jr., the prominent politician and clergyman who became the first African-American to occupy the office of mayor of Memphis, died Saturday afternoon.
The 76-year-old bishop of the Church of God in Christ died at Methodist University Hospital from an unknown illness.
Nearly a decade before Willie Herenton became the city’s first elected black mayor, Bishop Patterson was appointed interim mayor in 1982 after Wyeth Chandler stepped down to become a Circuit Court judge. He served as mayor for 20 days, making several high-profile appointments and key decisions during the brief stint.
As news of Bishop Patterson’s death spread late Saturday, local leaders praised him as a gifted leader who played a major role in the city’s history.
Mayor A C Wharton called him “a man of many talents who distinguished himself in so many different fields.”
“The name Patterson speaks volumes, and he lived up to that name,” Wharton said.
City Councilman Myron Lowery, who served as interim mayor himself, called Bishop Patterson “one of the greatest political leaders this city has every known.”
“I have followed in his great footsteps,” Lowery added.
U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen of Memphis remembered Bishop Patterson as an “extremely bright, extremely down-to-earth” man who loved jazz music almost as much as he loved Memphis. Cohen first met Bishop Patterson in 1970 when they worked together on Stan Snodgrass’ gubernatorial campaign. Cohen was just a volunteer at the time but said that from their earliest meeting, Bishop Patterson was extremely supportive of him.
“I appreciated his friendship and support,” Cohen said.
Bishop Patterson was born on May 28, 1935, and graduated with a B.A. in business administration from Fisk University in Nashville in 1958.
Before entering politics, Bishop Patterson practiced law in Memphis after earning a law degree in 1963 from DePaul University in Chicago. However, he encountered numerous racial barriers to his law practice and eventually decided to try his hand at state and local politics instead.
“He was motivated by law but he found out later the importance of politics and that’s why he continued to run,” Lowery said.
Bishop Patterson served one term as a state representative and two as a state senator. He also sat on the Memphis City Council for five terms, during which time he acted as interim mayor.
“He served during one of the most volatile times in the history of this city — during the sanitation worker strike in ’68. He was a voice of reason for the whole city and he helped bring about compromise,” Lowery said.
He ran for mayor in 1982 and was the top vote-getter in a special election to replace Chandler. But the winner had to receive more than 50 percent of the vote to avoid a runoff. Bishop Patterson got 40.6 percent; then-County Clerk Dick Hackett was second with 30 percent.
The two faced off in a Nov. 30 runoff, which Hackett won, 54.6 percent to Bishop Patterson’s 45.6.
Hackett called his former foe “a very intelligent man who always spoke his true beliefs.”
“He never, ever lost his class or dignity in making his point either…,” he added. “He was a real gentleman. This community, this society really misses that type of leadership.”
Bishop Patterson also served as a delegate to the Tennessee Constitutional Convention and the Democratic National Convention in 1972, 1976 and 1980.
The Patterson family has long been a presence in the religious, political and commercial landscape of Memphis, beginning with the founding of the Church of God in Christ by Bishop Patterson’s grandfather, Bishop Charles Harrison Mason. His father, J.O. Patterson Sr., became the first international presiding bishop of the church and Bishop Patterson himself served as bishop and was chairman of the General Assembly for more than 10 years.
He proved himself to be “a wise and faithful chairman, who served in one of the highest offices of the Church of God in Christ,” according to Presiding Bishop Charles E. Blake.
“This is certainly a great loss to us,” said Jurisdictional Bishop Brandon B. Porter. “He made such a tremendous contribution to the church. With both his business savvy and political savvy, he was able to bridge some gaps between the church and the community.”
He eventually became the president of the funeral home founded by his father in 1939, J.O. Patterson Mortuary.