Carl Atwood Elliott (1913-1999) was an attorney and a seven-term congressman who lived most of his life in Jasper, Walker County. Much of his work in the U.S. House of Representatives during the 1950s and early 1960s was in support of education and social programs to benefit his district, the state of Alabama, and the nation. Although he opposed federal desegregation legislation because he said that it incited violence, his political career was undone when he spoke out against conservative elements in Alabama and refused to work with Gov. George Wallace. He ultimately went into severe debt in an unsuccessful bid for governor in 1966, but was recognized by the John F. Kennedy Foundation for his positions on social issues.
Elliott was born in Vina, Franklin County, on December 20, 1913, to tenant farmers Will and Nora Elliott; he was the eldest of nine children. Unlike his parents, he graduated from high school, serving as Vina High School's valedictorian in 1930. Elliott worked a variety of odd jobs to pay his way through the University of Alabama (UA) and for a time even squatted in the abandoned campus observatory to save money. Elliott was the first person to become president of the Student Government Association against the candidate of "The Machine," a coalition of fraternities and sororities that heavily influenced campus politics. After graduating in 1933, he attended law school at UA; he graduated in 1936 and was admitted to the Alabama Bar. He married the former Jane Hamilton, of Jasper, in 1940, who remained his wife until her death in 1985. The couple would have two daughters and two sons. Elliott also served in the U.S. Army between 1942 and 1944. He was commissioned a first lieutenant in 1944 but never left the country because of injuries sustained during training.
Elliott's real passion was politics. His first campaign was a losing effort to be elected judge of the Walker County Court in 1940. He also was active in the state Democratic Party and served as James E. "Big Jim" Folsom's campaign manager in Folsom's failed gubernatorial run in 1942. At age 34, Elliott won the Seventh Congressional District of Alabama in a surprising landslide upset against incumbent Carter Manasco in the 1948 election.
During Elliott's subsequent seven terms in Congress, he strove to help those from similarly impoverished backgrounds. He enthusiastically supported liberal legislation, including the Fair Deal under Pres. Harry S. Truman, the New Frontier under Pres. John F. Kennedy, and the Great Society under Pres. Lyndon B. Johnson. Education was extremely important to Elliot, in part because he credited education with his own escape from rural poverty. He played an important role in passing the Library Services and Construction Act of 1956. This act, the culmination of an effort begun in 1946 when Alabama senator Lister Hill proposed a rural library demonstration bill, helped provide library services to 319 U.S. counties (including 22 in Alabama).
Recognizing the opportunities surrounding the 1957 launch of the Soviet satellites Sputnik I and II and the crisis of national conscience they produced, Elliott was also instrumental in passing the National Defense Education Act of 1958. The NDEA allocated $900 million in funding for educational institutions at all levels, primarily to advance defense-related disciplines like mathematics, sciences, and modern languages, as well as to generally improve the educational infrastructure of the country. The legislation provided low-interest loans to college students, graduate fellowships, and vocational training. Elliott counted this legislation among his proudest achievements.
Elliott was well known for his work on the House Rules Committee. In 1961, he was appointed to the evenly divided panel to overcome deadlocks and advance the liberal legislative agenda of the Kennedy administration. Although Elliott served with the understanding that he would not support legislation that directly challenged segregation, he was still widely criticized for helping to pass liberal legislation. At the same time, back home in Alabama, state politics increasingly came under the influence of Gov. George Wallace.
Elliott's small, poor, and mostly white congressional district might have allowed him to weather the backlash against the civil rights movement. However, congressional redistricting required after the 1960 Census cost Alabama one congressional seat. Elliot was able to get reelected in 1962, a race that was notable for the novel "9-8 plan" introduced by the legislature. Candidates ran in nine separate district primaries, then for eight spots in a statewide primary, then statewide for the eight seats. In the 1964 Democratic primary, however, Elliott became a target of the segregationist forces as Wallace consolidated his power, and he finished ninth among the 8 available seats.
Elliott ran for governor in the crowded 1966 contest that eventually featured Lurleen Wallace, standing in for husband George who could not run because of term limits. The passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and the burgeoning civil rights movement had given Elliott hope that the Wallaces could be defeated. But in a difficult campaign characterized by vandalism, threats, and occasional violence, Elliott finished third in the Democratic primary, and Lurleen Wallace easily won both the primary and the general election.
After his defeat, Elliott served in a variety of public roles in the late 1960s, including on the president's Library Commission
and in the U.S. Department of Commerce. But he found it necessary for financial reasons to return to Jasper and, in addition
to writing several volumes of local history, resume his legal career; Elliott had cashed out his congressional pension to
pay for his campaign but remained more than a half million dollars in debt. He continued to work until his retirement in 1986
as his health began to decline. In 1990, Elliott was given the first John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award for improving
education and opposing racism although faced with financial ruin. He wrote an autobiography, The Cost of Courage: The Journey of An American Congressman, that was published in 1992. He died January 9, 1999, still nearly destitute. He was buried in Oak Hill Cemetery in Jasper.
The Carl Elliott Regional Library in Jasper was named in his honor.
Elliott, Carl Sr., and Michael D'Orso. The Cost of Courage: The Journey of An American Congressman. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1992.
Roberts, Charles K. "Race, Wallace, and the 9-8 Plan: The Defeat of Carl Elliott." Alabama Review 62 (April 2009): 113-44.
Saxon, Wolfgang. "Carl Elliott, 85, Congressman from Alabama." New York Times, January 12, 1999.
Silveri, Louis. "'Pushing the Fence Back Too Far': The Defeat of Congressman Carl Elliot in 1964.' Alabama Review 45 (January 1992): 3-17.
Charles Kenneth Roberts
University of Alabama
Published August 7, 2009
Last updated December 16, 2014