By Steve Flowers
As one of America’s most conservative states, we have a history of electing very conservative senators. Jeff Sessions proved to be one of the most archconservative members of the U.S. Senate during his 20-year tenure.
Another archconservative that served 10 years in the Senate from 1968 to 1978 was the great Jim Allen. Jim Allen had an illustrious career in Alabama politics.
He was born and raised in Gadsden. He served in the Alabama House and the Alabama Senate from his native Etowah County. He was elected to his first term as Lieutenant Governor of Alabama in 1950, and to a second term in 1962. He was Lieutenant Governor during George Wallace’s first term as Governor. He was also a very successful lawyer in Gadsden.
Jim Allen is known most prominently for being the most astute parliamentarian in Alabama political history. He developed this trademark early in his career and honed it during his terms as Lieutenant Governor. Most state senate observers say that Allen had no peer when it came to knowing its parliamentary rules.
Allen went to the U.S. Senate in 1968. Many political experts expected Allen, the incumbent Lieutenant Governor, to run for governor in 1966 when George Wallace could not succeed himself and failed to get the legislature to change the succession law. But Allen was a savvy politician who never lost a political race.
He knew that Lurleen Wallace, as proxy for George, could not be beaten in 1966. He opted to lay low and take on the aging Lister Hill’s seat in 1968.
As expected, Hill announced early that he would not run for reelection in 1968. However, he did an unexpected thing and endorsed Congressman Armistead Selden to become his replacement. Selden was an eight-term congressman from the Black Belt and Hill had grown fond of him.
Another obstacle arose for Jim Allen. Wallace also backed Selden although not openly. Wallace and Allen had become friends and allies, but Wallace blamed Jim Allen for not gaveling through his succession bill in 1965.
So Allen began the race with both Lister Hill and George Wallace on the other side. However, Allen had gotten to know a lot of the Wallace organization and wound up with at least half of the Wallace crowd.
As the campaign began, there were riots in Washington. It was a time of civil unrest over the Vietnam War and the civil rights marches and landmark civil rights laws were fresh on people’s minds. Alabamians were sick of Washington.
Allen came up with the best campaign slogan of the last 60 years. He ran against “The Washington Crowd.” He had a very graphic photo of the riots and used the photo in his message of running against the Washington Crowd. Of course, the subtle subliminal message was that Allen was against the liberal Washington establishment that had forced integration and civil rights on the South.
Jim Allen became the conservative, anti-civil rights, pro-South candidate with that slogan. He tied Armistead Selden to the Washington crowd and won.
When Allen arrived in the U.S. Senate, the Dean of its Southern delegation was the venerable Richard Russell of Georgia, a master of the rules and the filibuster.
He led the powerful bloc of Southern U.S. Senators. Because of their seniority, they ruled the Senate. It had taken a massive movement to steam-roll the Civil Rights legislation over this bloc.
Richard Russell, knowing of Jim Allen’s reputation as a parliamentarian, brought him under his wing and made him his protégée. He told Allen from day one that the only way that he would be a power in Washington was to master the rules of the U.S. Senate. Allen took Russell’s advice. He learned the rules so well that he was considered the most able parliamentarian in the Senate during his first term.
Allen became the stalwart leader of the conservatives during his years in Washington. His positions were very reflective of his Alabama constituency. He almost single-handedly led the charge to thwart what he considered the giving away of the Panama Canal by President Jimmy Carter.
He had been fighting this battle for several months. He also had to fight diabetes. He came home to Alabama very tired one weekend during this fight and succumbed to a massive heart attack at his Gulf Shores condominium at age 65.
Jim Allen was a great Alabamian. Hopefully, the person we elected yesterday will be another Jim Allen
See you next week.
Steve Flowers is Alabama’s leading political columnist. His weekly column appears in over 60 Alabama newspapers. He served 16 years in the state legislature. Steve may be reached at www.steveflowers.us.