- Associated Press - Sunday, May 21, 2017

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) - Gwendolyn Patton, a lifelong activist and a figure in the civil rights community, has died.

Patton, 73, was the first female Student Government Association president at Tuskegee Institute and was retired from Trenholm State Community College, where she worked as the Special Collections on Montgomery Pioneer Voting Rights Activists archivist.

Born in Detroit on Oct. 14, 1943, she passed away on May 11. Her funeral was Saturday at Hutchinson Missionary Baptist Church.

Jeanine Wilson is Patton’s cousin, and hopes Patton leaves behind the message that once a person is afforded rights, that they then “have a responsibility to make sure it remains that way.

“Your responsibility to make sure that you don’t in-turn mistreat other people. She was a fighter, but her thing was to fight intellectually, spiritually, and when you do that, you don’t have to fight physically.”

In a Dec. 7, 2015, letter to the editor in the Montgomery Advertiser, Patton wrote of the 60th anniversary of the Montgomery Bus Boycott:

No one person starts, let alone sustains, a movement. A movement is only made possible when there is a collective vision, mission, strategy, working hands, walking feet, listening ears and resources. A movement is not spontaneous; it is a cumulative set of human circumstances over a period of time when a critical mass of people in one accord say, “enough is enough,” and we are not going to take disrespect anymore.

State Sen. Hank Sanders, of Selma, said while a lot of people were involved in the early civil rights movement, Patton continued on as a civil rights activist.

“She never stopped fighting to make things better for those who would come behind her,” he said. “And she fought in many ways. She fought with her words … by protesting, she just utilized all the means at her disposal to make the world a better place.”

Sanders met Patton in 1986 when they were working to organize the Alabama New South Coalition, of which Patton was a charter member.

“I’m sure I met her at various community meetings where people were fighting for human rights,” Sanders said of prior to 1986. “She was always a community person from the time I knew her. She was always trying to make the community better.”

Asked what stood out about her the most, Sanders said it was her commitment, vision, determination. She had a willingness to serve.

“She was a true servant,” he said. “She was always serving the community and never serving herself.”

Patton graduated from G.W. Carver High School, and as the first female president of the SGA at Tuskegee Institute in 1965, she made the historical and cultural connection between African-American and African students, according to the “Gwen Patton Collection” provided on the Trenholm State Community College website.

Patton retired from Trenholm on Sept. 30, 2014.

“She was always so enthusiastic with everything she did,” said Suresh Kaushik, dean of development at Trenholm, and who serves in the school’s president’s cabinet. “When she started working at Trenholm, we worked on a project to get some funding for a legacy garden next to the library building on Mobile Highway.

“When I asked her for information to put a grant proposal together, I was flabbergasted by the information she put together and of the community contacts she had of pioneers in the community.

“She was a civil rights foot soldier and an activist. The connections she developed between the community and the college … she helped strengthen those.”

Patton coined the phrase “scholar-activist” and urged students to work in the community for social, political and economic change, according to the website. She was direct action chair for the Tuskegee Institute Advancement League, and she, along with other students, planned strategies to desegregate Macon County, in which Tuskegee was the county seat, in all areas, especially in employment, according to the website.

Patton was a youth founder of the Alabama Democratic Conference (1960), the Black political wing of the state Democratic Party, one of the founders for the Alabama New South Coalition (1986) and was one of nine Jesse Jackson presidential delegates elected in 1984, according to the Gwen Patton Collection. She also founded the National Anti-War, Anti-Draft Union (NBAWADU) Against the War in Vietnam (1968) and the National Association of Black Students (1969).

Wilson, who said her relationship to Patton was more of an aunt/niece relationship, said Patton set high standards for others and for herself.

“Regardless of what happens to you in your life, you’re going to have difficulties,” she said. “She’d say you can overcome them. You can do anything that you put your mind to. Just as long as you know you can do it, and you don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

“She would fight for the unfettered rights of equality. What’s most important is that our young people understand that the torch is really and truly being passed down. They need to make sure they hold the highest level of responsibility in doing what they know they are supposed to do.”

Because of her civil/voting rights activities, she was targeted by the FBI’s Counter-intelligence Program (COINTELPRO), according to information provided through Trenholm State.

“Whenever there was something important in the civil rights movement, she was front and center,” said Julian McPhillips of McPhillips Shinbaum and author of “Civil Rights in My Bones: More Colorful Stories from a Lawyer’s Life and Work.”

“She had a heart of gold and had compassion. She wasn’t just a civil rights foot soldier, but she was a captain, a major. She headed a lot of things; headed a lot of marches and conferences. And she did it to bring glory on the cause, not herself.”

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