James Browning Allen (1912-1978) was known as a master of Senate rules and an effective legislator. Closely allied with Gov. George Wallace when he served as lieutenant governor during Wallace's first term, in the U.S. Senate Allen revived the filibuster and used his expertise with Senate rules to battle against legislation he opposed, though not always successfully. He was known during his tenure in the Senate as among the most conservative legislators.
Allen was born December 28, 1912 in Gadsden, Etowah County, to George and Mary Browning Allen; he was one of three children. Allen attended local public schools and the University of Alabama, graduating in 1931; he attended the University of Alabama law school but left without his degree, instead choosing to serve as an apprentice in his father's law firm. He was admitted to the bar in 1935. Allen was elected as the Democratic candidate to the Alabama House of Representatives in 1938 and 1942. He married Marjorie Stephens in 1940, with whom he had three children, one of whom (a daughter) died in a fire at age three. His burgeoning political career was delayed by World War II; Allen spent three years in the U.S. Navy and participated in the crucial Leyte and Okinawa campaigns in the Pacific theater.
After the war, Allen returned to the political arena and won a seat in 1946 in the Alabama Senate. There, he developed an interest in the intricacies of parliamentary detail, which later would serve him well in the U.S. Senate. In 1950, Allen ran successfully for the office of lieutenant governor, serving from 1951 to 1955 under Gov. Gordon Persons. When the federal government required school integration after the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954, Allen urged the state government to reject federal funds rather than accept it and be forced to comply with federal guidelines requiring integration. After a failed gubernatorial campaign in 1954, and being unable to serve a second term as lieutenant governor due to constitutional restrictions, he practiced law in Gadsden until he could run again. Allen's wife Marjorie died in 1956. In 1962, he was re-elected lieutenant governor, becoming the first person to serve twice in that office; Jere Beasley (1971-1979) and James Folsom Jr. (1987-1993, 2007-2011) have been the only other multiple-term lieutenant governors thus far.
George C. Wallace was the victor in the 1962 governor's race, and Allen's association with him would mark a turning point in his career. As the chief presiding officer of the state senate from 1963-1967, Allen forged a close political relationship with Wallace, despite contrasts in temperament and style of the two men. Allen was seen as a methodical, reserved politician of the old school, a stark contrast to Wallace's outspoken advocacy of white supremacy and unrelenting criticism of the federal government; both men were staunch supporters of segregation and states' rights, despite their differing personalities. Indeed, Allen was a vocal opponent of the both the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
In May 1964, Browning met his future wife, journalist Maryon Pittman Mullins, who interviewed him for the Birmingham News. The two were instantly attracted to one another and married four months later.
When Alabama U.S. senator Lister Hill retired from the Senate in 1968, Allen decided to run for his seat. Hill had endorsed U.S. Congressman Armistead Selden of Greensboro in the Democratic primary to succeed him. However, Allen used Wallace's now familiar theme of attacking the so-called Washington insiders to attack Selden. Selden tried to charge that Allen himself was a tool of New York's Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, a strategy that was quickly muted when Kennedy was assassinated on June 5, 1968. Allen won the Democratic primary and in the general election that fall carried 63 counties and 70 percent of the vote. He was reelected in 1974 with 95.8 percent of the total vote.
In the Senate, Allen was best known as a master parliamentarian who used the Senate's rules to delay and force changes to legislation with which he disagreed, including the creation of a consumer protection agency, taxpayer financing of elections, the Panama Canal treaties, and use of U.S. Treasury funds to defray the cost of Social Security. Indeed, some scholars have described him as being instrumental in shaping the parliamentary procedures of the modern Senate. He also used the filibuster with great success. He was less successful in getting his own legislation passed during his two terms. He supported the expansion of the U.S. military and pushed legislation to limit the federal government's efforts to integrate schools, including busing.
A strict ethicist who wished to avoid perceptions of conflicts of interest, Allen gave up his law practice, resigned his directorships of several corporations, and restricted his income to his $42,500 congressional salary. While in office, he never participated in congressional delegations abroad but did visit each of Alabama's 67 counties at least once.
Allen suffered a fatal heart attack while vacationing with his wife, Maryon, at Gulf Shores, Baldwin County, on June 1, 1978, dying immediately. Maryon Allen completed his term in the U.S. Senate. He is buried in Forrest Cemetery in Gadsden. His funeral in Gadsden drew mourners from across the state and a large contingent of his congressional colleagues.
Note: This entry was adapted with permission from Alabama United States Senators by Elbert L. Watson (Huntsville, Ala: Strode Publishers, 1982).
Elbert L. Watson
Easley, South Carolina
Published November 9, 2010
Last updated December 9, 2014