By Steve Flowers
The year was 1962. John Kennedy was President. Camelot was in full bloom. The Congress was controlled by Democrats only because the South was solidly Democratic. The Southern bloc of senators and congressmen were all Democrats. Because of their enormous seniority, they controlled both houses of Congress, especially the Senate. The issue of civil rights was a tempest set to blow off the Capitol dome. Kennedy was under intense pressure to pass major civil rights legislation. However, he was up against a stone wall to get it passed the powerful bloc of Southern senators.
Race was the only issue in the South, especially in Alabama. George Wallace was riding the race issue to the governor’s office in his 1962 campaign. The white southern voter was determined to stand firm against integration and was poised to vote for the most ardent segregationists on the ballot.
Our congressional delegation was Democratic, all eight Congressmen and both Senators. All had come to Washington during the Roosevelt New Deal Era and were somewhat progressive. They had been the sponsors of legislation to help poor Southerners during the Depression. Our two U.S. Senators, John Sparkman and Lister Hill, had a combined forty years of service. Hill was up for reelection in 1962.
Hill had gone to the U.S. Senate in 1938. He had served four six-year terms and had become a national celebrity in his 24 years in the Senate. He was up for election to a fifth six-year term. It was expected to be a coronation. He was reserved, aristocratic, and almost above campaigning. Hill was also soft on the race issue. He was a progressive who refused to race-bait.
Out of nowhere a handsome, articulate, Gadsden businessman, Jim Martin, appeared on the scene. Martin was 42, born in Tarrant City, a decorated World War II officer who fought with Patton’s 3rd Army in Europe. He entered as a private and became an integral part of Patton’s team, serving as an intelligence officer in the Army of Occupation, and rising to the rank of major. After the war he went to work for Amoco Oil and married a Miss Alabama – Pat McDaniel from Clanton. They then settled in Gadsden and he bought an oil distributorship and became successful in business. He was a business Republican and became active in the State Chamber of Commerce. When the State Chamber Board went to Washington to visit the congressional delegation, they were treated rudely by our Democratic delegates who were still voting their progressive New Deal, pro-union philosophy.
Martin left Washington and decided that Alabama at least needed a two-party system and that he would be the sacrificial lamb to take on the venerable Lister Hill as the Republican nominee for the U.S. Senate. Martin got the nomination in a convention and the David vs. Goliath race was on.
By late summer it was obvious that Martin had some momentum. He was being perceived as the conservative and Hill as the liberal. Every Alabama courthouse was Democratic – all sheriffs, Probate Judges, all statewide elected officials. It was hard to imagine that the tradition of voting Democratic would change, but the winds of segregation were strong.
When the votes were counted in November of 1962, Martin had pulled off the biggest upset in the nation. NBC’s team of Huntley and Brinkley reported the phenomenon on the nightly news. Republican President Eisenhower called Martin to congratulate him.
However, things were happening in rural North Alabama. Martin had won by 6,000 votes but three days later, mysterious boxes appeared with just enough votes to give Hill the belated victory. The entire country and most Alabamians knew that Jim Martin had been counted out.
Jim Martin would have been the first Republican Senator from the South in a century. Some people speculate that he would have been the vice-presidential candidate with Nixon in 1968. Regardless, he was the John the Baptist of the Southern Republican sweep of 1964, and the father of the modern Republican Party in Alabama.
That 1962 Senate race was a precursor of what was to come in 1964.
See you next week.