Luckett, Robert Edward
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This dissertation focuses on Joe T. Patterson, Attorney General of the State of Mississippi from 1956 until his death in office in 1969. As a prominent white politician in the Deep South, he was an outspoken segregationist. At the same time, he was a “man of the law.” As Attorney General, Patterson defended the legal implementations of Jim Crow in the state, but he also had to enforce federal law, as interpreted by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court. Those interpretations undermined segregation and black disfranchisement during Patterson’s four terms in office, which forced him to both defend and attack the foundations of Jim Crow. For his efforts, Patterson reaped criticism from each side of the civil rights movement. To the most adamant racists like Mississippi’s Governor, Ross Barnett, he was a traitor—a “Kennedy liberal” and the man responsible for James Meredith’s successful integration of the University of Mississippi. In fact, Patterson opposed Meredith’s admission with the full force of his office, but, once all legal barriers had been removed, he played a key, albeit unwanted, role in getting Meredith safely to Oxford. For those sympathetic to the civil rights movement, Patterson was a daunting foe. His ability to claim Barnett as a political enemy and his law-and-order record allowed him leeway in the eyes of the national media and the federal government, which made his brand of segregation quite effective. While Patterson claimed to enforce the letter of federal law, he forestalled its spirit through his dedication to a type of “color-blind” politics that explicitly ignored race as a determining factor but implicitly was all about the maintenance of white power. Difficult to define and undermine, his ideas were at the forefront of a burgeoning conservative movement throughout the nation. Rejecting racial demagogues and violence, the white voters of the state turned to Patterson in order to better forestall the encroachments of the civil rights movement.