By Alvin Benn
June 30, 2009
Montgomery's Gwen Patton has been a civil rights activist most of her
life and still gets a kick out of honors that she insists she's never sought.
The latest addition to a vast collection of books, photographs,
autographs, political buttons and campaign posters is a thick volume
listing her credentials along with the likes of Hank Aaron, Rosa
Parks, Johnnie Carr, Michael Figures and many more Alabama notables.
"I was elated to learn I've been included in a book with so many
civil rights leaders," Patton said Monday, as she relaxed in her
modest house on Patton Avenue, which she said is not named for her
family. "I feel like I'm in high cotton."
The book, "African American National Biography, Volume 6," was
compiled over the past several years by two Harvard University
professors -- Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham.
As archivist at H. Councill Trenholm State Technical College, Patton
has put together an impressive collection of civil rights material
made available to authors, historians and others interested in an era
that helped change the face of America.
"She's certainly an icon of the civil rights movement and has been
deeply involved in that part of our history," said Zenobia Blackmon,
who directs Trenholm's library.
References to Patton take up more than two full pages in the national
biography and resulted from extensive interviews with her by Pamela
Brooks, a noted author who has written numerous books about the civil
rights era, often focusing on women who played important roles.
Patton's involvement in the civil rights movement includes
associations with a "Who's Who" of that era, including the Revs.
Martin Luther King Jr. and Jesse Jackson, U.S. Rep. John Lewis,
Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael, H. Rap Brown, James Forman and many more.
She helped organize or support civil rights groups such as the
Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Student Non-Violent
Coordinating Committee, National Association of Black Students, the
Montgomery board of the League of Women Voters, Alabama New South
Coalition and many others.
At the age of 65, Patton shows no signs of slowing down and recently
completed a stint on the Selma-to-Montgomery Historic Trail Advisory Council.
Patton may have been born in Michigan, but she spent most of her
formative years in Alabama, where she'd visit family members during
the summer when she was out of school.
In 1961, she enrolled at Tuskegee Institute, where she honed her
organizational skills, became a student leader and led protests
during the turbulent period of the 1960s when civil rights activities
often resulted in violence.
Patton said she was married twice "to the same man" and beat breast
cancer as well as a devastating injury that almost led to amputation
of her left leg.
She has said in the past that the challenges she's faced during her
life have helped "to make me even stronger."
Several rooms of her house are filled with awards that have come her
way through the years. The house looks like a mini-museum and she
said she does wonder at times what to do with it all.
"I haven't told anybody about this latest thing because I'm not that
kind of person, but, I must admit that it makes me feel good to be
mentioned in such a wonderful collection of African-American
leaders," said Patton, who also has a master's degree and a doctorate.