Meet William L. Patterson. World War II veteran. African-American. Seeker of justice.
It’s 3:05 on a sunny Friday afternoon, just two hours before the long Memorial Day weekend. In U.S. District Court in Hartford, a clerk scurries out of the office early. Everyone wants to leave.William L. Patterson pages through a ratty case file at the front desk. He scribbles on a lined sheet of paper, two canes resting against the clerks’ counter, which he uses to support his 82- year old frame. He looks confused.A clerk agrees to help with the copy machine. “I’m awful sorry to bother you,” he offers. “You’re not bothering me at all!” she responds, a little too forcefully. She tells him how to put the quarter into the machine, instructs him to wait a few minutes for the machine to warm up, and then returns to her desk.I want to get out of there too, but I need to use the copy machine. As Patterson fumbles with his document, I know the only way I will get back to my office in time to put out a few more phone calls before folks leave for the weekend is if I do his copies for him.I offer. He hands his document to me with thanks. He is blind in one eye, he says. I regard him- tweed jacket, tie, gray slacks, Nike sneakers, and a Navy blue baseball cap with “American Legion” stitched in yellow lettering.“Were you in the Army?” I ask.“Yes. World War II,” he responds.“Where did you serve?”“India.“The U.S. Army had a famed presence there, under the command of General Joseph “Vinegar Joe” Stilwell. They fought with Chinese soldiers against the Japanese Empire. “Stilwell?” I inquire.“Vinegar!” Patterson replies with a broad smile. “He led us over the Himalayas!” I ask Patterson if he fought under Vinegar, but he says no. “I was too much of a coward!” he says, then bursts out laughing. He was in the quartermaster’s division. Joined the army in 1942, after graduating from Weaver High School a year before. He served in Bombay, Calcutta, and learned some Hindi. To prove it, he spontaneously offered an unintelligible phrase.Patterson’s unit was segregated. Most of his fellow soldiers came from the South, and didn’t know how to read or write, he says. Patterson read their letters for them. After receiving the photocopies, Patterson finished his business in the clerk’s office and collected his two canes to leave. I wished him a good Memorial Day. He thanked me again, returned the tidings, and then walked off, slowly, one cane in front of the other.After I finished my work, I bounded down the hallway to exit the building, and there he was, almost to the front door. I introduced myself as a journalist. I asked if I could have his contact information.At that moment his eyes lit up, and he told me why he was in the clerk’s office. He had worked for SNET for decades, he says. They discriminated against him. He sued. He told me I had to write a story about his case. He told me God intended that we meet.Not wanting to spend hours talking to him on the street- and still with plenty of work to do that day- I told him that I would look at his case, and that I would be in touch with him if I were interested. He looked skeptical. Later that afternoon I would find that Patterson indeed sued SNET for civil rights violations. He was an employee. And a judge dismissed the case in 1994.1994. Now 11 years later, Patterson is still seeking justice. That’s what he was writing on that sheet of lined paper. It was his motion to reopen the case. “You had better be interested, because I have given you this assignment!” he told me on the street. It is an assignment I will not refuse.