As a child, Carl Elliott heard stump speeches from well-known Alabama politicians such as William Bankhead, Hugo Black and Tom Heflin.
In his autobiography, “The Cost of Courage,” Elliott wrote that he wanted to raise people’s hopes through the power of his words and then he wanted to be in a position to do something about it.
Thus, a Congressman was born.
“He thought politics was something noble and he used it for noble purposes,” said Mary Jolley, Elliott’s longtime friend and assistant.
Elliott first ran for office in 1935; he was elected president of the Student Government Association at the University of Alabama.
After graduating from UA, Elliott set up a law practice in Russellville, the seat of his native Franklin County. Six months later, he moved to Jasper.
When Elliott was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1948 at age 34, the only political office he had ever held was that of city judge.
True to his roots, Congressman Elliott took up the causes of the forgotten and disadvantaged.
He supported Social Security benefits for farmers, fought to raise benefits for veterans, represented sick coal miners in court and helped expand public housing.
“He loved poor people, and there are not many folks in this world who do that even though Jesus Christ gave us the model,” Jolley said.
Elliott’s constituents responded in kind.
In 1961, after having served in his early years on the committees of Veterans Affairs and Education and Labor, Elliott was named to the most powerful committee in the House, the Rules Committee.
It was well-known that Elliott and two others would help push through the agenda of the newly-elected president, John Kennedy.
Chairman Howard Smith, a conservative, remarked that the new members would not be around long enough to justify wasting money on new leather chairs. Instead, he issued them straight-backed chairs typically provided in the committee room to spectators, not Congressmen.
Members of Elliott’s 7th district, including schoolchildren, pooled $200 worth of nickels, dimes and quarters and ordered a plush executive chair for their representative.
“They also sent along a note saying the congressman from the Seventh Congressional District of Alabama deserved as good a chair as anybody else on the Rules Committee, and so here it was,” Elliott’s hometown newspaper, the Daily Mountain Eagle, reported on the day the chair was delievered.
Elliott’s legacy from the 16 years he spent in Congress is wrapped up in two pieces of legislation — the Library Services Act of 1956 and the National Defense Education Act of 1958.
Both were born out of Elliott’s personal struggles, and both were watershed moments in the history of progressivism.
“A lot of legislation arises out of precedent. There were no precedents in this field,” Jolley said. “There had never been any federal money for libraries. There had never been a federal loan program to help people go to college except the GI Bill. For the general population, there was nothing.”
The Library Services Act promoted the development of public libraries in rural areas.
Elliott, who had limited access to books as a child, discovered on a trip to Winston County in 1955 that the hunger for knowledge does not diminish with age.
What he saw there made such an impression that he wrote about it in his autobiography as well as in a 1960 library bulletin.
“A man in his eighties, who had a hearing aid and a walking cane, met the bookmobile and said he wanted a book on space,” Elliott wrote. “He said that he had thought that he ‘would be dead and gone before outer space amounted to anything,’ but he had decided that the space age was going to be here before he left and he needed to know something about it. So he checked out a book on space.”
In 1989, famed Alabama author Kathryn Tucker Windham wrote in a personal letter to Elliott, “Every time I go into a public library or see a bookmobile, I say, ‘Thank you, Carl Elliott.”
Education had also been a longtime concern of Elliott’s.
While a student at UA, he had a personal meeting with President Franklin Roosevelt about college scholarships. Roosevelt’s successor, Harry Truman, practically laughed the newly-elected Elliott out of his office when he broached the subject of federal aid for education.
Securing passage of the NDEA was an extremely difficult task. It was opposed by key House leaders and had virtually no support among his fellow Southerners, who believed that accepting federal money for education would lead to integration.
“He had introduced an education bill every year for 10 years, but what made it finally come together was Sputnik,” said Lenora Cannon, Elliott’s daughter.
News that the Soviets had beat the United States into space sent shock waves throughout the country. Americans were behind, and education was the way to catch up.
Elliott and Sen. Lister Hill of Alabama jumped at the chance to write and introduce a bill to “strengthen the national defense and to encourage and assist in the expansion and improvement of educational programs to meet critical national needs and for other purposes.”
By 1965, less than a decade after its passage, the NDEA had helped more than 750,000 students go to college.
When Elliott was thrust into the national spotlight in 1990 as the first recipient of the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award, he received hundreds of letters thanking him for opening the doors of higher education to them.
One woman from Washington wrote that she and two of her siblings went to school on NDEA loans.
“We had very little personal money...Our parents were deceased, and there were no relatives who had money that they could use to support our education. Without the loans, none of my family would have been able to attend college. Thank you for your courage. I regret that the price you paid for courage was so high,” she said.
Elliott’s greatest achievements also spelled his political demise. The NDEA was colorblind, but Southern voters were not.
Although Elliott voted against some civil rights bills in order to stay in office, he was no segregationist.
For 16 years, he had aligned himself with liberal legislation that benefited the poor, regardless of race, and the federal government that he championed was increasingly viewed in his home state as intrusive.
“He didn’t sell out on the race issue even though he knew what it was doing to him. It wasn’t that he didn’t know there was another way. He could have been a George Wallace if he wanted to,” Jolley said.