Carl Elliott was elected to Congress in 1948, the same year that Southern Democrats rebelled against President Harry Truman and their own party over segregation and states’ rights.
Elliott soon found himself caught between his own convictions and the political climate into which he had been chosen to serve.
Mary Jolley, his longtime assistant, recalls a visit they made to the Walker County Training School to discuss a number of improvements in the 7th district, which Elliott represented for 16 years.
“He said, ‘Their eyes were saying, ‘You’re not talking about life where I live. You’re on another planet.’’ Big, strong man that he was, I thought he was going to cry right there,” Jolley said.
However, Elliott voted with his fellow Southerners against civil rights legislation.
He was convinced that if he was caught on the wrong side of the issue, voters would replace him with a reactionary who would vote not only against civil rights but also education, public housing and other initiatives he supported.
“He voted for every piece of what was considered liberal legislation. He voted for everything else all around it (civil rights), anything that he could do to help the advancement of poor people,” said Lenora Cannon, Elliott’s daughter.
Jolley said Elliott also might have been biding his time in hopes that the mood of conservative Southerners would change. However, she saw for herself how difficult that would be on a visit to a Winston County convenience store.
“He (a clerk) gave me some scorching, George Wallace rhetoric about black people. I left there thinking, ‘That man goes day in and day out and never sees a black face. What does he know about black folks? But boy, he didn’t like them. That’s what he [Elliott] was up against,” Jolley said.
In the 1964 Congressional campaign, Elliott again stood solidly with the national Democratic party and federal programs in spite of growing anti-Washington sentiment in the state.
The election of George Wallace as governor two years earlier and the rise of groups like the White Citizens’ Council also meant Elliott could no longer keep quiet.
In 1963, Elliott made national news when he referred to the right-wing John Birch Society as “loud-mouthed know-nothings whom Thomas Jefferson would have dismissed as intellectual nitwits and whom Jackson probably would have horsewhipped.”
Nearly 30 years later, Elliott showed no remorse for such remarks while compiling his memoirs.
“I’m proud of most of the things I did that hurt me politically — and I’m sorriest about some of the things I did that were supposed to help,” he wrote.
In fact, Elliott’s votes against civil rights had not provided him with political cover as he had believed.
Two years after the campaign, Elliott wrote in a personal letter about a cool reception he had received in Eldridge following a stump speech.
“A number of people....refused to shake hands with me on the ground that they did not want to shake the hand that signed the civil rights bill of 1964,” he said.
In the May 1964 district primary, Elliott beat state Rep. Tom Bevill by more than 2,000 votes. However, he still had to win a statewide race referred to as “low man out.”
Alabama had lost one of its nine congressional districts because of a population decline revealed in the 1960 census.
Due to inaction in the Alabama legislature, the nine Democrats elected in the district primaries had to face off in a statewide primary. Only the top eight advanced to the general election.
Although the plan had already been ruled unconstitutional, the court permitted its use in 1964.
When the votes came in on June 1, 1964, Elliott was the low man out.
The Daily Mountain Eagle reported that he had “apparently been victimized by his ‘Southern liberal attitudes,’” and “was defeated by an unconstitutional nominating system.”
The paper also assigned blame to a conservative group that went on the offensive in the last days of the campaign.
“The group, using the ‘stand up for Alabama’ slogan popularized by Gov. George Wallace, flooded the state with ‘sample ballots’ just before the run-off which left off Elliott’s name,” the paper wrote.
Elliott was 6,000 votes short in the statewide race and did not win a single county in his own 7th District. He ran fifth in Winston County and eighth in all other counties in the district, including Walker.
In a front page editorial, the Eagle wrote, “It was not Elliott who lost in Tuesday’s election...it was those progressive minded individuals of Jasper, Walker County and the ‘Old 7th Congressional District.’ It was all the people who voted for him and saw their hopes shattered and it was the foolish, benighted individuals who did not vote for him and who ruined our chances for a place in the sun.”
Undeterred by the loss or $20,000 in campaign debts, Elliott announced his candidacy for governor in October 1965.
He would later refer to the race as “a campaign the likes of which my state and this nation had never seen before and I pray will never see again.”
Elliott’s stump speeches were disrupted by bomb threats. His campaign workers were driven off the roads. His billboards were defaced with the words “Never! Never! Never!”
“It was scary. People were driving down the highways taking potshots at his picture. So we knew people were very angry,” said Jean Williams, one of Elliott’s secretaries during the campaign.
Wallace’s wife, Lurleen, easily won the race, beating 10 other candidates without a runoff.
Elliott finished third and with more than $500,000 in debt. In the final week, he cashed in his Congressional pension to help pay for 30 minutes of TV time after several important backers reneged on their offers.
Defeat was certain before the first vote had been cast.
“There came a time in that campaign when he said, ‘It’s lost. We’re not going to win, but I’m not going to quit. I don’t want anybody to run me out of my race. People have followed me and have tried to help. I’m going to stick with it,’” Jolley said.
In his autobiography, “The Cost of Courage,” Elliott referred to the 1966 campaign as “the last time a man seriously stood up to George Wallace in this state, and I paid for it.”
In the years to come, Elliott lost his house, his health, his reputation, his wife and his two sons.
In his memoirs, published in 1992, Elliott noted that he had been rereading the book of Job in what would be the final years of his life.
“The Cost of Courage” opens with two quotations. One is from the fifth chapter of Job: “...therefore despise not the chastening of the Almighty. For he wounds, but he binds up; he smites, but his hands heal.”
The other is from Elliott’s contemporary, John Fitzgerald Kennedy: “And when at some future date the hight court of history sits in judgment of each one of us — recording whether in our brief span of service we fulfilled our responsibilities to the State — our success or failure in whatever office we may hold will be measured by the answers to four questions. Were we truly men of courage? Were we truly men of judgment? Were we truly men of integrity. Were we truly men of dedication?”