By SKIP TUCKER, Alabama Daily News Columnist
Now comes the victorious resurrection of the remarkable Mr. Elliott, he of the shining, shining path.
Just days ago, the late U.S. Rep. Carl Atwood Elliott (D-Jasper) was elected righteously to the Alabama Lawyer Hall of Fame. Some other folks caught on sooner.
Hugely, in 1990 he received the first Profiles in Courage Award from the John F. Kennedy Foundation, given the one who best exemplifies courage in elected officials. Parade Magazine had done a cover story announcing the award and calling for nominations. In three weeks, more than 5,000 nominations were generated nationwide. Let that sink in. More than 5,000 of America’s finest were considered. Carl Elliott was chosen.
The award trophy is a stunning sterling silver lantern, handcrafted by Tiffany. The DC ceremony was lavish.
This, from the distinguished selection committee:
“Former Congressman Elliott of Alabama is a living profile in courage. Aging, ill, almost blind, almost impoverished, almost forgotten, he is a brave and principled public servant. He faced intense public scorn, suffered personal abuse and political defeat while achieving victories for the good of the nation he loved and for progress on issues of equal opportunity.”
In simple words, he worked his way through the University of Alabama’s law school, served 16 years in congress, lost a 1966 bid for Alabama governor in which he incurred a massive debt he had no hope to repay, honorably refused bankruptcy and retired from the public eye. The rest of his days half of every dollar he made went to debt.
But it’s not that simple.
His National Defense Education Act was the catalyst for bookmobiles, libraries and lowcost student loans across the nation. Anyone who has borrowed a library book can thank Carl. He fought for the rights of folks who seemed to have none, and little chance for a better life. He lighted the the path.
So the Tiffany lantern is a ship’s beacon, replicated from the those on the U.S.S Constitution. Apropos. In 2015, it was donated it to the University of Alabama and sits in its velvet-lined box in the foyer of Gorgas Library.
I attempted to put a monetary value to it and went through a half-dozen departments at Tiffany. Nobody tried.
A senior official said, “It is a unique thing. I cannot place a value on something that has no comparison. Pick a number.”
Just as pleasing to Carl would be the Carl Elliott Society at the university, a service/honorary organization established 15 years ago. There are no entitlements. Members are selected on basis of grades, service and achievement.
There are 70 spaces available. Last year, more than 700 students applied to share the name of a man dead two decades.
Celebrations of the upcoming 60th anniversary of the library act are being held in schools in Jasper, Tuscaloosa, University of North Alabama and his hometown of Vina. Bevill State Community College annually gives the Carl Elliott Award to the most accomplished student of its several campuses. All wonderful and happy honors.
And I’m sorry, but those things, fine as they are, define Carl Elliott no better than the atom bomb defined Einstein. I’m sure Carl thought it swell that very important people consider him a very great man, but his relentless push for national education is the lasting thing. Books are the things. Vision and care for the least of us – those are things.
A lot of people knew Mr. Elliott better than I, but Carl Elliott to me was almost a state of mind. He saw things that needed doing and he set out to do them with a determination that couldn’t be stifled. He saw it coming – the hard road, the less traveled way – and didn’t shy from it.
Contemptible villainy laid him low, but it could not prove rampant nor unrestrained. Mr. Elliott, well as anyone, defined in its early days The Movement, just by living it. He and the Kennedys and the Kings and the Ghandis and canaries in coal mines sacrifice their lives for something pure and unadulterated and shining. They choose it. They do it because immortals can do aught else. It is as natural to them as breath, and death.
So here is how I’ll remember Carl Elliott, his son John, who was my best friend, and Carl Jr. and Mrs. Elliott.
John would’ve been my son’s Godfather, and in my heart is, though he was 10 years’ gone beforehand. And I wished then to my soul that John could’ve known him.
One night, soon after my wish, I dreamed. I was at the gate to the backyard of the unpretentious Elliott home in Jasper. I’ve been there many times. This was different.
It seemed a balmy spring afternoon, high clouds, bright sunshine and a light, sweet breeze. I think it’s always spring in that realm. Honeysuckle covered the gate and as I approached, it opened and there was big John, in his customary jeans. They were bluer than blue, his long-sleeved white shirt was whiter than white. He smiled an Elliott smile, shook my hand and welcomed me in.
The yard was, and is, board fenced, no bigger than most lawns in small towns. But this time its borders seemed vast. Flowers of type and hue I didn’t recognize were vivid, occasional throughout the yard. There was the flatrock patio, an aluminum swing and a big oak tree. A sublime aroma permeated.
The crowd was small but plentiful, if that makes sense (or if it doesn’t). There was the hum of conversation, the clink of garden party and soft laughter everywhere.
John led me up to Mr. and Mrs. Elliott, who turned toward us as I approached, and they held out their hands and their smiles shone. They shone. Everybody and everything in that yard shone.
John said, “All good. All good.” and I woke smiling, too.
I had my blessing from the Elliotts.
During this three-part reflection a great man, I’ve likened him to Socrates. A student of Socrates was Diogenes, who, like Carl Elliott, believed the foundation of every state is the education of its youth. About 2,400 years ago, he routinely carried a lantern through night streets in Greece in search of just one honest man.
Maybe you can put that lantern down now, Mr. D.
(Thanks to author Carroll Dale Short for “shining, shining path,” and to Judge Champ Lyons for nominating Mr. Elliott for the Hall of Fame. Next week: Carl Elliott and Robert Kennedy get me in bad, bad trouble.)
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.