The Life of Congressman Carl Elliott
by Al Blanton
Right now, there is a lantern resting in the foyer of Gorgas Library at the University of Alabama. Constructed by Edwin Schlossberg, this beautiful lantern is made of Tiffany’s glass and was once appraised at over $25,000. It was given to former Congressman Carl Elliott when he became the first recipient of the The John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award. But its true worth is found, not in the cost or the precious materials, but in the symbolic light that it emanates.
The light flickered on in the little town of Vina, Alabama, on December 20, 1913. Carl Elliott was born the son of a tenant farmer. The farmer and his wife would welcome eight more children. When he was a boy, Carl became a voracious reader. He learned to read by reading the Bible with his grandmother, and later, he would walk miles to a man’s house, just to get a book. After he finished it, he’d walk back and exchange it for another.
“He loved to learn,” recalls Elliott’s daughter, Lenora Elliott Cannon. “Everything he did had to do with education and books.”
Carl graduated high school at sixteen and arrived on the campus at Alabama with a total of $2.38 in his pocket. He had been lured by a letter, written by the school president, Dr. Denny, imploring high school seniors to “Come to Alabama!” Carl felt that this was an open invitation to visit Denny himself.
“Those two dollars aren’t enough to go to school here,” replied Dr. Denny when Carl arrived in his office. So the first night, Carl slept under a truck. The next day, he went back. Dr. Denny, sensing Carl’s desire to get an education, boarded him in the old observatory—a holdover from the Civil War—with no electricity and no running water.
To pay for his education, Carl picked up odd jobs. He worked with a ground crew. He stoked furnaces. He cleaned dorms. He was the head waiter in the men’s dining hall. By the time he left Alabama he had tutored a football player named Paul Bryant and had been elected as Student Body President. The light was burning.
Elliott went to law school and befriended a man named Herman Maddox. After law school, Maddox was able to convince Elliott to move to a little town in coalmining country, to practice law. Elliott came to Jasper in 1937.
After practicing law for several years, Elliott won a Congressional seat in 1948. By that time, he was building a family, and they would split time between Washington D.C. in the summers and Jasper in the fall and spring.
While in Congress, Elliott was instrumental in two key pieces of legislation. The first is the Library Services Act, which provided bookmobiles to rural communities across the country. The second was the National Defense Education Act, which, as Elliott said “opened the doors of colleges to sons and daughters of the poor” by providing student loans.
During his time in politics, Elliott also stood up against political machines by taking a moderate stance of civil rights. He ran for governor against Lurleen B. Wallace in 1966, and lost. For years, Elliott lived in relative obscurity, practicing law, and writing articles for the Daily Mountain Eagle. He also wrote a several-volume history of Walker County, entitled The Annals of Walker County. “If he could rub two nickels together, he’d publish something,” says Lenora. His later years were spent penniless and battling diabetes in his Jasper home.
But in 1989, a writer for the Boston Globe awakened the nation to the efforts of Carl Elliott in the midst of the political hurricane of the 1960s. Wil Haygood’s piece, “Twilight of a Southern Liberal” exhumed the courageous story of Elliott that had been long buried. Lenora Cannon believes that this article helped her father to be selected as the recipient of the Profile in Courage Award.
While receiving the award in Boston, Elliott and his family met Jacqui Kennedy Onassis, who would later edit his memoirs and send a writer to Jasper to work on Elliott’s biography. The Cost of Courage was published by UofA Press in 1992.
Carl Elliott was part of a unique breed of individual who valued courage of conviction over political party affiliation. He was a man who thirsted for knowledge, who understood the value in preservation. He was a lover of learning. He was a writer. A statesman.
Because Elliott had to go out of his way to get an education, he wanted to make it easier for others to receive one. Elliott was never a very wealthy man, because he invested his time and money in things that could never pay him a return. This is the cost of courage.
Carl Elliott passed away in 1999. But today, his lantern shines, bringing light to a dark world. 78