The Man Who Bailed Out MLK

This Unsung Hero was a bail bondsman for civil rights activists as well as a radio pioneer.

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This profile is part of a yearlong series titled The Root's Salute to Unsung Heroes, which will put a weekly spotlight on African Americans who have been recognized by the Corporation for National and Community Service as Drum Majors for Service. The inspiration for the honor is the spirit of community service that Martin Luther King Jr. described in his 1968 sermon "The Drum Major Instinct."

Let it never be said that James "Alley Pat" Patrick was one of your run-of-the-mill do-gooders. At least, don't say it in the legendary disc jockey's presence. Patrick, who has been tabbed by the White House as one of more than 1,000 recipients of the Martin Luther King Drum Majors for Service Awards, cultivates an image of disreputability the way some politicians cling to sanctimony and jingoism.

"People probably put the Alley in my name because I was a low-down character," says Patrick, who turned 92 in December.

Think of him, he says, as one of the guys sharing a pint in an alley, while more-virtuous souls are sharing high-minded thoughts in church.

Yet Patrick, who has long since given up drinking, has been an undeniable force for good in his long, eventful life. A groundbreaking radio personality on Atlanta's WERD, the first black-owned station in the country, Patrick was one of the DJs who gave black radio of the 1950s and '60s its wide-open, energetic style, mixing hot music with outrageous humor and appeals for justice in the segregated Deep South.

He was also known, during another phase of his career, as the black bail bondsman who would show up in small-town bastions of Jim Crow to bail out civil rights protesters. Among his many clients was Martin Luther King Jr., a well-known frequenter of Southern jails in those days of unrest.

But don't call Patrick a hero or a radio icon. "I'm not one of those people who likes to be out front," he says. "I like being in the background. I don't want any glory."

Old-time radio buffs probably remember Patrick best as a kind of down-home Don Rickles, an infallible detector of the foibles and weaknesses of callers or in-studio guests or even sponsors. Every politician or preacher or upright citizen of Atlanta was fair game for the sharp-tongued DJ, who uproariously depicted them as bootleggers, skirt chasers, grammatical dolts or secret carousers, sometimes even accurately. He can't remember all the names of his targets now, but he remembers the soft spots that he aimed for.

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"There was one guy -- what was his name? -- a baseball announcer. He used to say, 'So-and-so slud into second base.' " Patrick laughs heartily, still pleased with the rough beauty of a long-ago remark.

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