“There was a presence to Carl. When he walked into a room, you knew he was there.”
This was in 1948. Jolley had no way of knowing that her own career would later become inextricably bound with Elliott’s trajectory in the U.S. Congress, as a force for education, libraries and literacy — and later, in a historic campaign for governor that would test Alabama’s conscience during the heat of the Civil Rights era. Today’s interview is in the dining room of the Carl Elliott House and Museum in downtown Jasper, and just two blocks away is a brick building whose front is inscribed “Carl Elliott Regional Library.” A generation of area students remember the familiar Carl Elliott Bookmobile that visited their schools to supplement the offerings of their libraries. Elliott often included a line in his speeches, “Man builds no structure that outlives a book.”
And while the then 20-something Mary Allen didn’t yet know that her future lay in Washington, D.C., she was pretty sure it didn’t lie in Cold Springs. “I think my upbringing instilled in me the concept of public service,” Jolley says now. “My mother had been an Army nurse in New York City during the flu pandemic of 1918, and my father was on the Board of Education in Sumter County where I grew up. ”There were always people coming to our house, and sometimes they’d be mad at Daddy for a vote he’d taken. I could hear them talking ugly to him, and I didn’t like it. But my parents were always doing things for people. Nobody in that community was born or died without my mother being there.”
It was the summer of 1954, when Mary was working in the Tuscaloosa office of Congressman Armistead Selden, that Elliott happened to visit one day. He remembered her from the Cold Springs event (“I’ve always been known as a man with a pretty good memory for names and places,” Elliott writes with uncharacteristic immodesty in his memoir The Cost of Courage. “Folks down here say the only man better at it is George Wallace.”) and not long afterward called to offer her a job on his staff in Washington. To call that era a momentous and divisive time in government is an understatement. The U.S. Supreme Court had just unanimously ruled segregation unconstitutional in Brown vs. Board of Education, and on the horizon were controversial bills such as the Voting Rights Act of 1955. One of the measures of Jolley’s eventual impact on Elliott’s career is the thick list of references to her name in the “Index” section of The Cost of Courage. One of the first entries is the line, “Mary hit the ground running.” She laughs at the description now, but says it was an apt one.
“I guess I always had an insatiable desire to learn new things,” she says. “And having left a small rural community, Washington was a whole new world. Washington was an enormous change and I tried to soak it all in. The great thing about working with Carl was that he always gave me every career opportunity imaginable. One of my favorites was when he wanted me to work on a problem in Remlap, Ala.
“He said, ‘I need you to do so-and-so over there, and I don’t care how long it takes. Just stay till you get it done, and come on back.’ Often, that was the only instruction I got: ‘Go over there, land on your feet, get it done, and come on back.’” In the process she accumulated hands-on experience and a lot of highway miles. This was during a time before many rural areas had motels, so Jolley would rent a room in Jasper that she could return to and spend the night.
“These were elderly ladies who were very kind and made me feel at home,” she recalls. “One year, I lived with a Mrs. Douglas, another year with a Mrs. Kelley. People used to joke with me, because I had a new address every year: ‘Mary, why don’t you pay your rent so you won’t have to keep finding new places to live?’”
But the opportunity to learn from scratch also carried some unexpected lessons for a young idealist: how to let go of a firmly held ideal solution and “work within the system” to achieve goals.
“When the NDEA (National Defense Education Act) was on the floor, Republicans offered an amendment to strike everything after the enacting clause and substitute a Republican bill. Carl was managing the debate, and he didn’t say one word against the amendment. Instead, the Republicans on Carl’s committee got up and defended the original bill. They said, ‘Mr. Elliott has listened to our views, we’ve made an impact on this bill, he’s accepted some of our ideas.’ Short version, ‘Don’t mess with this bill,’ you know? And we got the bill through, without him having to say a word about it. That’s the kind of skillful legislator he was.”
Elliott remarks in The Cost of Courage about a particular interest group: “I could never get it through to them that you’ve got to take your pie one slice at a time.” But being a premier champion of education and literacy in the U.S.A. would seem, on the surface, like championing motherhood and apple pie. Why did Elliott have to constantly fight such an uphill battle for his main causes?
Jolley says the subject of education often raises the hot-button issues of race and religion: “Race, particularly, was in the forefront when the NDEA was coming on. There was the ‘Southern Manifesto,’ all the George Wallace stuff. Many people want education for themselves, but they don’t want everybody to have it.
“But Carl saw himself as coming out of poverty through education, and he felt very deeply that these student loans ought to be open to everybody in a democracy, that they ought to help everybody without regard to race, creed, religion, or whatever. He believed it was an investment.
“When it came to counting votes on an issue, I always said, ‘There’s us over here, and them over there, and thus it will ever be. So you have to pull your votes from the middle. And that was Carl’s strength. He could do it time after time after time.” Not surprisingly, those skills won him eight consecutive terms as a U.S. Representative. But Elliott’s strategy of pulling from the middle would receive its ultimate test, not in Congress, but in his run for Alabama’s governor in 1966. Technically his opponent was incumbent Lurleen Burns Wallace, who was widely seen as a surrogate for her husband George after his own term limits had expired.
By this time Jolley had moved on to another job, a seat on a John F. Kennedy presidential panel charged with evaluating vocational education programs in the U.S. “This was shortly after Carl had gone on to the Rules Committee,” she recalls, “which is an area of such high politics that a person like me, who was interested in bills and all that — it basically disappeared, and I was doing gatekeeping and answering mail, so I was out of my mainstream function when the Kennedy opportunity came along.”
But when Elliott decided to run for governor, once again it was Jolley he phoned for help, and she responded. The cover of The Cost of Courage is a gritty black-and-white photo from that time period: Carl Elliott in coat and tie standing on the back of a flatbed truck, making a stump speech in some small-town square, with a crowd of impassive faces against a background of bleak winter trees.
It was a day such as that, Jolley remembers, when she realized this election was one that Elliott couldn’t win. “I was the advance person who went out front and did the scheduling, found a place for him to park the truck and speak, helped round up an audience, and so on. This particular day we were in Union Springs, in south Alabama, and the crowd was both black and white. I could feel the animosity coming from the white crowd; they weren’t about to vote for Carl Elliott. Then I watched the black crowd, and they had skepticism all over their faces. They weren’t going to vote for him, either. Their votes would go to another candidate, Richmond Flowers. Carl was right in the middle, trying to be the racial moderate, and neither side was happy with what he had to say. So that was a very disappointing day. Just terrible. Terrible.”
As she feared, Elliott missed the runoff by coming in third of seven candidates. At the time, few people outside his inner circle knew the personal cost he paid for fighting the Wallace forces. When his campaign donors had dried up, he cashed in his Congressional pension to pay the difference — ensuring himself a lifetime of deep austerity and debt. Jolley’s professional life A.E. (after Elliott) would be another roller coaster of new experiences. She worked as vice president for development at Trident Technical College in Charleston, S.C., pioneering programs to educate women for non-traditional jobs, and then returned to the University of Alabama to serve as director of economic and community affairs until her retirement in 1994. Along the way, she met and married an educator named Dr. Homer R. Jolley, president of Loyola University, who had spent the first half of his life as a Jesuit priest. As she told a Unitarian-Universalist audience during a recent talk, “I had never even seen a Catholic until I was 25 years old. There were none in my region of Alabama. But the teachings of social justice and the common good found in the teachings of the Catholic Church, especially among the Jesuits, have drawn me strongly into that tradition.”
Homer passed away in 2001.
Now retired at the age of 86, Mary Jolley lives in Tuscaloosa and serves on a list of local and regional community boards that fills almost half a page — most of which involve children and families, education, literacy, health, and job creation. In 2010 she received an honorary degree from the University of Alabama for her lifetime achievements.
She’s frequently called on to do public speaking, and her years working with Carl Elliott remain a touchstone of her talks. They’re probably best summed up, though, in the remarks Jolley made at Elliott’s funeral, at Jasper’s First Methodist Church in 1999:
“Today, I remember him for his principled character, his absolute integrity, his courage in the face of adversity, his compassion for the poor and less fortunate, his love of books and learning, and his dedication to the ideals of public service. Most of all I remember him for the positive influence that he has had on my life.
“I’ve never known any other person like Carl Elliott, and we perhaps will never see his like again.”
Dale Short’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org