Ill and Broke, but Not Forgotten, Ex-Congressman Carl Elliott Is Honored as a Profile in Courage

updated 07/02/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/02/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

It's a long way from Capitol Hill. In Jasper, Ala., just down the highway from the Alabama Snake Farm and the Sanford & Mom Flea Market, a nine-room house covered with asphalt shingles and peeling paint creaks on its foundations. Inside, the room that was once Rep. Carl Elliott's legislative headquarters lies buried in floor-to-ceiling piles of law books—mementos of a career destroyed 26 years ago by the racial hatred that inflamed Alabama. Until recently, the world seemed to have forgotten Elliott's 16 years of service as a progressive Southern Democrat willing to stand up for blacks, veterans and the poor in an era when too few in his state cared to defend such constituencies.

On May 29, however, Elliott reemerged from obscurity when the Kennedy Library Foundation honored him with its first Profile in Courage Award. "Elliott was one of a small group of Southern congressmen in the '60s who did not ride the wave of segregation hysteria," says Earl Black, a professor of political science at the University of South Carolina. "He was a moderate, and that took courage back then." Not only did the award restore his reputation, the $25,000 stipend promised a little relief from nearly $500,000 he owes in old campaign debts. Crippled by severe diabetes and confined to a wheelchair, Elliott, 76, lives on a monthly Social Security check of about $700 and an Army pension of $387. "I'm happy to have the award because it'll help me pay some debts before I leave this world," he says. "It'll also help me eat."

The eldest of nine children, Elliott was born on a tenant farm near Vina, Ala. At 16, he left the fields and struck out for the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa with $2.38 in his pocket, spending two nights under a tree until university officials admitted him. Working his way through college as a grounds keeper, he earned his bachelor's degree in 1933 and a law degree in 1936. He set up shop in Jasper, where, after a two-year stint in the Army, he practiced law until he was elected to Congress in 1948.

During his tenure, Elliott put in 16-hour days fighting for legislation that is now taken for granted, including federal funds enabling poor students to attend college, Medicare and raising the minimum wage. And in his own way Elliott did what he could to promote civil rights. "At the time, a Southerner couldn't stay in Congress unless he voted against civil rights," he says. "I voted against it specifically, but I tried to accomplish it through other means—bills for better wages, housing and education for while and colored."

That compromise would not withstand the emergence of George Wallace. Campaigning for Governor in 1962, the segregationist Wallace courted Elliott's support. "He sat on that couch over there," recalls Elliott, gesturing across his living room. "I listened to him a long time and said, 'George, I don't believe in what you stand for. I can't go that route.' " Elliott kept his congressional seat in 1962, but Wallace won too and became Elliott's nemesis. During the 1964 campaign, right-wing extremists led by the Ku Klux Klan went after Elliott. "They had dressed-up followers in trucks that were fitted out like tanks," he says. "I'd be speaking and here would come those trucks, and folks on 'em would push everyone off the streets." Elliott went down to defeat. Undaunted, he staked everything he had on a quixotic campaign for Governor two years later against Lurleen Wallace (she was running as a stand-in for her husband, who was barred by law from succeeding himself). Elliott came in third in the primary. "It was the last hard campaign against George Wallace," he says. "It left me totally broke. I regret that I'm in debt, but I can't regret the cause."

Elliott practiced law until 1977, when he was diagnosed with the same form of diabetes that had killed his eldest son, Carl Jr., four months earlier. His wife, Jane, died in 1985. Elliott is now cared for by his three remaining children, John, 43, Lenora Cannon, 41, and Martha Russell, 45. Described by friends as a "frustrated historian," Elliott has published a few volumes on Alabama history and hopes to write his memoirs. As for regrets, he claims few. "I thought I was right," he says of his career. "Appreciated, underappreciated—it didn't make any difference to me." Belatedly, the world has recognized that Elliott was right—and that he did make a difference.

—Montgomery Brower, Michael Mason in Jasper

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