June 1964: Elliott's career in Congress comes to an end


Congressman Carl Elliott was in Eldridge on Sunday, May 31, 1964, to dedicate a new post office, but his mind was on the election that was two days away.

"Speaking under cloudy skies, Rep. Elliott again attacked the 9-8 congressional race where nine candidates run for eight places from the state at-large," the Daily Mountain Eagle reported June 1. 

Alabama had lost one of its nine congressional districts because of a population decline revealed in the 1960 census. Because Alabama legislators had failed to come up with a redistricting plan, the nine Democrats elected in the district primaries in May 1964 had to take part in a statewide runoff on June 2. Only the top eight advanced to the November ballot. Although the plan had already been ruled unconstitutional, the court permitted its use. 

Elliott, one of seven incumbents in the race, had a strong resume. First elected to Congress in 1948, he was a member of the powerful House Rules Committee and had authored the National Defense Education Act in 1958, which opened the doors of higher education to low-income students. 

Elliott had the full support of his hometown paper. The Eagle ran a series of front-page editorials supporting him in the weeks leading up to a May 5 primary against Tom Bevill.

The April 1 editorial pointed out that Elliott's district had received 49.5 percent of all Area Redevelopment Administration money flowing into the state, 20 of the state's 35 funded projects and 1,336 of the 2,310 jobs that were being created by ARA.

Elliott knew that the economy, no matter how much it was in need of an infusion of such funds at the time, would not be the deciding factor in his reelection, however. He would have to prove that he was on the side of Southerners, and that meant being vocal in his opposition to the proposed Civil Rights Act of 1964.

"I am real proud that I have been able to fight in the front ranks against the civil rights bill and help rally nationwide support for our southern position," the Eagle quoted Elliott in one article.

In April 1964, Elliott called for a national referendum on the bill, stating that there was growing evidence that voters didn't want it.

An April 30 advertisement in the Eagle claimed that Elliott helped tie up the bill in the House Rules Committee and that he agreed with Southern leaders on civil rights 100 percent.

"Vote for a man close to the people. Vote for segregation. Vote for better jobs. Vote for Carl Elliott," one part of the ad read.

Elliott, who voted against civil rights legislation in 1960 and 1964, would later say that he had to toe the line because he feared that voters would replace him with someone who would not only vote against civil rights but also oppose legislation regarding education, public housing and other issues that aimed to help all.   

His liberalism would ultimately be his downfall. 

The Eagle ran a half-page ad from Bevill on April 16 stating that Bevill "can win a statewide race since he does not have a voting record that he has to overcome, whereas the present congressman supported northern liberal Democrats 88% of the time in 1963."

Though he beat Bevill 9,021 votes to 6,761 votes, Elliott was the so-called "low man out" in the June 2 runoff.

Elliott was 6,000 votes short statewide 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.  

"Politicians throughout the state, I'll bet, are laughing at the people of our district for not supporting our own Congressman, thus allowing our district to be without representation and possibly in a position to be chopped up," Eagle managing editor Larry Corcoran wrote. "While talking with Congressman Elliott on election day, he said he would be several thousand votes behind all the other congressmen when they left their respective districts since the 7th was much smaller. What Congressman Elliott did not know at that time was that the people of his own district were choosing these other congressmen before him in his own district."

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.”

The official article on the loss said Elliott had been "apparently victimized by his Southern liberal attitudes" in spite of his votes on civil rights.

Elliott kept his concession short and avoided casting blame.

"I wish to express my deep appreciation to the thousands of loyal friends who have worked so faithfully for me in my two campaigns this year. My love will always be with the people of Alabama and I sincerely hope my 16 years of service in Congress will continue to benefit them in the years to come. My deepest desire now is that the Congressmen who serve the 'old' 7th district will not neglect it but will love and cherish her people as I do," he said.

Bevill would be elected to Congress in 1966 and would retain his seat until his retirement in 1997, ending a 111-year tradition of a Jasper resident serving in Congress.

According to an article from his death in 2005 at age 84, Bevill entered the U.S. Army in 1943 and served in the European theater of operations during World War II. As a young captain, he led a group of soldiers across the English Channel into France as part of the D-Day invasion campaign, the 75th anniversary of which has been commemorated this week. He retired from the Army Reserves as a lieutenant colonel.

Jennifer Cohron is the Daily Mountain Eagle's features editor.