By Skip Tucker, Alabama Daily News
Robert Kennedy believed that so long as people respond to courage of enlightened conviction there is hope for the future. Late, great U.S. Rep. Carl Elliott (D-Jasper), embodied that hope, well as anyone.
I knew Carl well but it is only now, through a distant mirror, that I think fully understand what he did and why. I think I grasp its immensity.
At the end of the day, he, with aforethought, literally sacrificed himself to principle. Sure as the bravest soldier sacrifices his life for the good of others, for a higher ideal, Carl Elliott knowingly laid down his life for nothing less than honor and truth. And it didn’t even work, in those raucous days. Maybe it’s working now.
Carl’s political life showed that courage and ability are hard pressed to overcome heinous snakery, vaulting ambition and treachery.
He was born into poverty, raised himself to a position of esteem and power, battled entrenched forces of ignorance and evil, won, lost and finally died, aged and almost destitute and proud. If it isn’t too twisty, it might be said that he battled life on its terms on his terms. He took many disasters handed him, but he never let them alter his innate courage, his vision, his indefatigable cheerfulness.
He retired victorious from the field.
I couldn’t begin to tell you in a thousand words all the good things Carl stood for and the bad things he stood against. His book, “Cost of Courage,” does that.
So I’ll encapsulate what I know and feel.
Carl ran for governor in 1966 and finished third to Lurleen Wallace, who stood in for George because at the time a governor couldn’t succeed himself.
Here’s the immense thing: Carl knew going in he couldn’t win that race. He knew and he’d told his insiders that Lurleen Wallace was unbeatable. But he alone, on a darkling political plain, stood in best position to speak of the strife and poison he sensed. He saw the probable consequences of that dangerous road. Could he shy from it?
In the first part of this trilogy about Carl, I compared him to Socrates and confused some folks with my headline that Carl sort of shared the hemlock, the point being that Carl, like Socrates, would choose the hemlock of obscurity rather than swallow the shoddy, shady shameful politics of the day.
Carl Elliott realized in his youth that society’s leveler is education. Without education, the poor stand no chance. (It grows ever more true.) So he set to work.
Through the depression, he worked himself through law school. Then he went to Jasper, set up business and, according to a plan he set for himself when he was in the third grade, entered politics. In 1948, he was elected to the U.S. Congress and there he shone.
Everything he did was pointed to providing the needy the very opportunities that he didn’t have as a youth. And the main thing he worked toward was educating the poor.
In 1956, he wrote and sponsored and passed the Library Services Act that funded Bookmobiles. Then his genius really kicked in.
For years, he worked to to create a law that would make education more available, like local libraries and low interest loans for prospective college students, but the U.S. Congress wouldn’t help. So, so help me, the Russians did.
It is surprising, at least to me, that perhaps the main reason anyone can saunter down to the local library to get the latest J.K. Rowling is attributable in large part to Sputnik, the first satellite in orbit (the word means “fellow traveler of earth.” It is what I named my first dog). The satellite scared hell out of everyone and also money, by the payload, out of Congress. Any proposed legislation that carried the word Defense in its title was automatic law.
Carl, being no dummy, rewrote the library legislation to title it the National Defense Education Act, which funded libraries, school laboratories and low interest student loans. Bearing that moniker, it flew through to passage. His message was, “They obviously are getting smarter than we are and they’ll stay that way unless we do something to educate our people.” And that’s why you can borrow books.
It is as important a piece of legislation as any that have come out of the Hallowed Halls. That jewel of thought by Carl Elliott has helped millions of Americans.
But Carl was thought to be progressive (because he was) and progressive was a very dirty word to some people whose name I won’t mention (George Wallace). So, as U.S. Rep. Elliott entered the sixties envisioning the TennTom Waterway, Gov. Wallace entered politics by claiming in private that he would be a world champion racist (he put it more bluntly than that). And he became so.
Those two men were flint against steel, with the expected result. Alabama politics wasn’t big enough for the both of them. So a plan was laid, or, rather, a scheme was hatched.
As per Wikipedia: “Alabama had failed to redistrict itself from nine to eight districts in 1962, based on the 1960 census. By the 1964 primaries, a redistricting plan still had not passed, so Elliott became the congressman who was eliminated. His defeat was attributed to his policy conflicts with Gov. George Wallace.”
So Carl came home, just as the 1966 Alabama gubernatorial campaign was heating up, and many came to ask him to run. He said no. He repeatedly said Mrs. Wallace would run.
Finally, at the behest of supporters who promised to fund the campaign, he called George and, according to Carl’s son, John, the conversation was brief.
Carl: “George, there’s no use pretending that we’ve seen eye-to-eye, but I want you to know that some people want me to run for governor. I’m not going to run if Lurleen runs, so I’m asking you straight up and man-to-man for the truth. Is she going to run?”
Carl: “Can I have your word on that?”
So Carl, as they say, tossed his hat into the ring. Not long before qualifying ended, so did Lurleen Wallace. So, a lie in politics. Imagine that.
Since Carl himself had said Lurleen couldn’t be beat, his support faded away, and told him to resign he race. What a conflict must warred within him. He knew it was a practical impossibility for him to beat the Wallaces, purely impossible without money. But he felt he had to get the message out that hard times approached if we took the racist path, and the best platform was the governor’s race.
But basically he had to finance the campaign himself. To do so, he cashed in his Congressional pension, and borrowed against practically everything he owned, including his home.
He finished third, and ended the race with an insurmountable personal debt. There are on-line calculators for everything. At age 53, Carl came home to Jasper owing perhaps today’s equivalent of $7 million. His public life relatively was over.
Here are questions that long plagued me: Why didn’t he drop out of a race when it became clear he couldn’t win? Why, for God’s sake, didn’t he declare bankruptcy, when that is the very thing the law is for?
The answers astound me.
The first isn’t just that Carl’s sense of honor was total. If he said he’d do a thing, the thing was good as done, if he could do it. But it was deeper.
Like the canary in the coal mine that keels over to warn that poison is in the air, Carl sensed poison in the resistance to Civil Rights. He stood tall against it, and for his effort received death threats and endured enough mud to start a young swamp. He didn’t throw mud in return because it wasn’t his way. Like Socrates, who preferred hemlock to politics of hate, he chose the cup.
Not that he was hopeless. He hoped the truth might shine through the mud. He hoped courage and confidence and truth might overcome bombast and slick political sleights of hand, and he hoped for a groundswell and funding that never came. Figuratively, he was slain.
Then, according to his code of honor, he refused to declare bankruptcy. Until the day he died, fifty cents of every dollar Carl Elliott earned went into that insurmountable mountain of debt. He received help from family and friends, but he was nearly financially destitute the rest of his days.
Nor was he ever bitter. Indeed, he was ever cheerful, even in the face of a wicked, seemingly mean and malevolent fate that stalked him. His son, Carl Jr., dead from diabetes at 35. John, my friend, dead at 45 from cancer. His wonderful wife Jane (who of course owned a bookstore), suddenly gone from a rare brain abscess that swelled so fast it killed her.
Carl reeled from it all. He was very human. But he leaned into the blizzard and pushed on, never faltered, never lost courage, never lost hope, even as obscurity claimed him.
Or did it.
(Next time: The indomitable spirit of Carl Elliott rises shining to the light. It surely, surely does.)
Skip Tucker was editor of the Daily Mountain Eagle in Jasper, then communications secretary for gubernatorial folks like George McMillan, Charlie Graddick and Jim Folsom. He ran Alabama Voters Against Lawsuit Abuse for in Montgomery for 15 years. He has published one novel, Pale Blue Light, a spy thriller set in The Civil War. He’s now a regular contributor for the Alabama Daily News at www.ALDailyNews.com.