Former Eagle editor befriended both powerful figures in Ala. politics
by Jennifer Cohron
Dec 29, 2013 | 2390 views | 0 0 comments | 50 50 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Bill Jones, 91, is pictured in his Birmingham apartment. Jones worked for Congressman Carl Elliott in the 1950s and later served as press secretary for Gov. George Wallace.  Daily Mountain Eagle - Jennifer Cohron
Bill Jones, 91, is pictured in his Birmingham apartment. Jones worked for Congressman Carl Elliott in the 1950s and later served as press secretary for Gov. George Wallace. Daily Mountain Eagle - Jennifer Cohron
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Bill Jones was a mutual friend of political enemies — Carl Elliott and George Wallace.

Jones met Elliott after moving to Jasper in 1952 to become assistant publisher at the Mountain Eagle. He took a leave of absence in 1955 to serve in Washington, D.C., as Elliott’s press and legislative assistant for one session of Congress.

Several years later, Jones worked in the governor’s office as Wallace’s press secretary. He was beside Wallace during his infamous stand in the schoolhouse door and headed up his presidential campaign in 1968.

“Elliott did not play politics. Wallace did,” Jones said of the key difference between two men he respected.

Jones’ bond with Wallace was formed in the 1940s when the two were students at the University of Alabama.

After Wallace graduated with a law degree, he helped get an African American cook whom Jones had befriended out of legal trouble.

Jones received a call from the governor-elect in 1962. Content with the work he was doing in Walker County, Jones initially declined Wallace’s offer to be a press secretary.

On Dec. 28, less than a month before Wallace’s inauguration, Jones received another phone call from Wallace. He agreed to talk over the offer with his wife, Jean, and give Wallace his final decision in three days.

“I picked up the Birmingham News the next morning and said, ‘Jean, you better look at the paper,’” Jones recalled.

A bold headline on the front page announced that Wallace had named Jones as his press secretary.

“He hadn’t accepted the position yet. Never did, but a few days later he was gone to Montgomery,” Jean Jones said.

A newspaperman of Jones’ caliber was an important addition to Wallace’s staff.

After graduating from UA in 1943, Jones served in the Army for two years and then began honing his craft at newspapers throughout east Alabama.

His first job was as managing editor and advertising director of the Alexander City Outlook. Over the course of six years, Jones accepted assignments at every newspaper within the chain and helped turn them into successful publications.

Jones spent 10 years in Jasper, first at the Eagle and then as the editor, publisher and co-owner of the Walker County Times.

Although he would soon be on the payroll of politicians, his heart never strayed far from the pressroom.

“Journalism is a great field, and it’s needed. People who are holding office need somebody to tell them to shut up and sit down,” Jones said.

It was during his time in Jasper that Jones was introduced to Elliott.

The Joneses’ first child, William, was born days before they were scheduled to move to Washington, D.C., in 1955 for a one-year stint in the Congressman’s office. Elliott drove up to the capital with the young family.

During the car ride, Jean Jones found herself in the uncomfortable position of having to nurse her son in close proximity to Elliott.

“I put a diaper over us, but there were still sound effects. Carl, without turning around, said, ‘Jeanie, it’s so nice in this day to find modern young women who are willing to nurse their babies. You are to be congratulated.’ That took care of it all,” Jones said.

In 1961, Elliott called the couple prior to the birth of their third child.

“He said, ‘Do you have names?’ I said, ‘Amanda if it’s a girl and if it’s a boy, we’re going to name him after a dear friend — Elliott. It was the only time that I ever heard him speechless,” Jean Jones said.

Elliott Jackson Jones was born in September 1961. The Congressman’s namesake later fought discrimination based on sexual orientation at the University of Alabama.

Elliott never shied away from unpopular battles himself. Jean Jones recalls a conversation they had about a piece of legislation, possibly the national education bill that Elliott championed for 10 years before it became law in 1958.

“He said, ‘The people of Alabama need this, and I’m going to sponsor it. It will probably ruin my career.’ And it did,” she said.

In contrast, Wallace was more interested in political expediency. Bill Jones never viewed Wallace as a racist, merely an adept populist who knew how to turn his words into votes.

“He did what he had to do to get elected. You can’t do anything if you’re in politics and you don’t get elected. ‘Worthless’ isn’t a good word for it, but that’s what it amounts to,” Jones said.

In Jones’ retelling of the stand in the schoolhouse door, the goal was to achieve national notoriety for Wallace.

Jones was not only on campus for the showdown with the federal government over segregation.

He helped stage every move that would be made by the principal characters in order to maximize press coverage and minimize the chance of violence.

Jones’ own politics were closer to those of Elliott than Wallace’s supporters.

He was known as the liberal on the staff and was intensely disliked by several of the state troopers who surrounded Wallace and wanted him to go even further in defending segregation.

Jones had a better relationship with the governor’s security team.

“They depended on me to take what Wallace wanted to do and put it in a context where the public would accept it and not get us all killed,” he said.

Jones left Wallace after the 1968 presidential campaign and purchased a bankrupt publishing company, which he and his wife turned into a successful venture and ran until their retirement several years ago.

Although Jones was part of political history through his association with Elliott and Wallace, the only time he was tempted to become a candidate himself was in 1966.

Elliott, still reeling from the loss of his Congressional seat two years prior, wanted Jones to run his gubernatorial campaign.

Wallace asked him to do the same for his wife, Lurleen, a stand-in candidate because state law prohibited him from succeeding himself.

Unwilling to choose between his two friends, Jones ran unsuccessfully for Congress against Tom Bevill.

Five decades later, with both Elliott and Wallace now dead, Jones still won’t disclose which of his friends received his vote for governor that year.